Feb 172021
 

Note: The following is a short excerpt from a book I have been drafting, about how lost the species Homo Sapiens has become. I have titled it Moving to a Different Rock: Humanities Journey Home. I welcome your thoughts.

Ending Selfishness

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

                                                            Thomas Merton

The moment we entered this world we were given life…is it possible we deserve nothing more? Should life be a continual search for what we can give in return for this extraordinary gift, rather than a search for what we can gain? To the extent we allow ego to gain identity and strength by shrouding itself in privacy and hiding behind possessions, we make it difficult or impossible to “cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.”

If I were to suggest that another species had the right to own some portion of this Earth’s resources—that we had no right or access to them—we would be incensed. And yet, we believe we have the right to do just that to other species. What the Universe has given, is given equally to all.

And while the thought of giving up private property is radical enough, how might the world be different if we allowed the possibility we do not have the right to, nor do we even deserve, personal privacy? To have another person know everything about me—even my most intimate thoughts and feelings—would seem a violation.

However, what if we imagined for a moment that all human privacy vanished? What if we lived in a world where all was revealed, a world in which openness and vulnerability were a matter of course, rather than a matter of choice? The moment I became angry, you would know. My jealousies, frustrations, and hatreds would be revealed for all to know. Could I live in a world in which all I revile about myself, everything about me that makes me feel small and inadequate would be known?

There is a Buddhist tradition that suggests if we could see deeply into the soul of those in front of us, we would never accomplish anything; we would be too busy bowing to one another. In a world where you immediately know my story, you may know my faults, but you also know all that tears at my heart. And I too would know what tears at yours. In such a world, we would look at each other and the faults would vanish in the face of our mutual humanity. And in that moment of blessing, the word Namaste—the God in me is witness to the God in you—would have meaning we cannot now even begin to appreciate.

But I am not just suggesting the absence of personal privacy might have value. I am suggesting we do not deserve personal privacy.

One of the first lessons we try to teach young children is the value of sharing and generosity. Why are sharing and generosity so valued? Because when we share with another, the value of what the Universe has given us multiplies. We both gain from experiencing the utility of what is in front of us, and because we not only have our own ideas of its value, through the connection and clash of those ideas, the utility for humanity can multiply many times over.

But our sharing and generosity comes to a halt when it comes to the most intimate, and I might suggest, valuable parts of who we are. I am fond of suggesting to those who call the suicide hotline—those desperate to find the value of their lives—that they are living a life never lived by any human throughout history; a life that will never be lived again. That gives every person some unique view of what it means to be human. But that unique, precious, and enormously valuable wisdom is unavailable unless we are willing to share our stories in all their most intimate details.

To demand personal privacy just might be the ultimate form of selfishness. Ending that selfishness—to learn to talk openly about our deepest vulnerabilities—is one of the skills we will need to witness true beauty amid the coming chaos.

Jan 142021
 

It is so very difficult. When I witness anger and hatred boiling out of a mass of humanity, as that which flooded my life on January 6, part of me wants to turn away and remain in denial. Another part sets out, with the rest of me as an unwitting accomplice, to hate those who hate. In those moments I am reminded of words from The Prayer of St Francis: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” Neither turning away, nor allowing hatred to take me hostage, helps heal the wounds that underpin the anger that erupts in the world.

Let me be clear, I am terrified by what the far-right intends for the future of the United States, and globally. There are millions who want a racist world order I find reprehensible. But in this moment, I am desperately trying to separate the movement from individuals that inhabit it.

Anger and hatred are often consequent emotions. If I have learned anything from 18 years answering calls on a suicide hotline, it is this: what shows up as anger and hate, usually emerge out of profound sorrow, deep hurt, or debilitating fear. Sometimes all three. Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi punk rock musician, and founder of the Free Radicals Project, now works tirelessly to prevent extremism and help people disengage from hate movements. In his raw, emotionally-charged book, Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism, Picciolini reveals his secret to helping people escape…he listens. He listens without judgement for what he calls the “potholes” in their lives—abuse, bullying, desertion, loss, grief, and more—that leave them feeling lost, alone, marginalized, and worthless. Arguments, logic, and rationality are, in his experience, not helpful. Those devices, to which we so quickly turn, leave the person in his midst feeling unheard, lost, and lonely. They can even trigger a frightened, vulnerable individual and send them back to the safety of the extremist community that first took them in. Understanding and empathy are the only keys that unlock doorways.

In a post on social media, I recommended four books, including Breaking Hate, that have helped. They do not, even for an instant, enable me to accept the hateful language, but they have offered a glimpse into the emanation of far-right vitriol. When I suggested these volumes, one respondent replied, “Understanding it is pointless. The only thing to do is to stop tolerating it and begin prosecuting, stopping, and jailing every last traitor.” If we are talking appropriate consequences for a mob trashing the rule of law, I agree. However, if, instead, I focus on the millions of individual broken souls that inhabit that dark and dangerous landscape, I must demur. In an interview, Jitarth Jadeja, who spent two years as a dedicated follower of QAnon, but now understands the horrific lies and fabrications, was asked how to help others discover the truth. “It has to start with empathy and understanding,” he said.

Shortly after January 6, a friend asked, “What about ISIS? They want to kill me. Am I supposed to offer them empathy and understanding?” Call me naïve, but, even there, in a one-on-one, human conversation with a person who sees differently than I, what might I discover about the treacherous mountains and terrifying chasms millions must endure? Those lessons are only available if I first try to understand rather than insisting on being understood.

The Prayer of St. Francis continues: “Where there is doubt, let me sow faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” If I begin in this moment, is there even a remote chance of healing a miniscule portion of the profound sorrow, deep hurt, and debilitating fear that is in my midst every day, but to which I am often blind?

 It is so very difficult, but, in the end, it is the most enlightening and joyful of journeys.

Dec 162020
 

How might I be different if I knew every idea, thought and reflection I retain in the synapses of my brain is limited or wrong, and acted in every moment as if that were true? How might I treat others differently, and how might they treat me in new ways, if, in a moment of meeting, we knew each had something of value to share with the other. How might my relationships with others be different if I stopped the incessant building of walls to protect my own misguided ways of seeing? What would it take for us to see that learning and new ways of seeing are available to us in every moment? If we were to listen to each other in ways that showed our care, concern and affection for them and their life story, might we also exhibit unconditional love?

How might the world evolve in new ways if we were to listen with every ounce of our being to each word another speaks? It is said the humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, would perspire when listening to another because he found it to be such difficult work to be fully present to another. How might our conversations change if we were to listen to everything others have to say? How might our discourse change if, after every thought, a moment of two of silence ensued so we might digest the wisdom in another’s thoughts. If we knew we were going to be truly heard, that every thought we were to express would be treated with respect, might we also slow down and choose our words carefully. In today’s conversations do we feel the need to talk rapidly and express every thought and emotion, for fear the minute we pause, our voice would be silenced?

If I am to honor the covenant with others in search of truth, a requisite is to listen…to always act in ways that show I am open to new ideas, new thinking, and alternative ways to see the world. I must be prepared to begin more of my retorts in discussions and debates with “the perspective you just expressed is interesting and different from mine…would you be willing to explain how you come to that conclusion?” rather than “that’s wrong!”

The word respect comes from the same root as the word inspect…the meaning of which is to look. Inspect means to look into, and respect to look again. We truly respect another when we are willing to take the time to relook—with interest and sincerity—at a perspective that differs from ours. To declare another’s perspective as misguided, without listening deeply to their story, is to show tremendous disrespect…and miss a valuable opportunity to learn something new about the Universe through a new set of eyes.

Dec 082020
 

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
                                                                                Martin Luther King, Jr.

The arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice; however, its trajectory is not unerringly true. As I step ever so gently, perhaps timidly, into the new year, I feel a terrible vulnerability; my naiveté gone, replaced by a honed understanding of how the arc of justice can, at least for a time, be torn asunder.

2020 showed how the arc wanes when doing battle with selfishness. I have always known the human experience to be a fragile undertaking, but I was naïve to its true frailty until a microscopic virus transformed every relationship in my life, some becoming stronger, but many stressed. During the past months, we could have bent the arc significantly toward justice, but millions opted to put their perceived needs ahead of the protection of their neighbors. We lost a priceless opportunity, I fear. Millions were left exposed to the ravages of a danger many refused to acknowledge.

2020 proved the arc can warp when facing greed and corruption that often accompany quests for power; at least for now, we appear to have escaped by the narrowest of margins. The first transition of governance I recall was dealt to us through tragedy on November 22nd, 1963. Yet, even in the face of Kennedy’s assassination, the United States was strong and robust. Prior to 2020 I witnessed eight transitions between Democratic and Republican administrations. I never imagined here, in the United States of America, that that monumental transfer of power would ever take place with anything but the utmost dignity and grace. That naiveté, too, has been ripped from my life. Power will, once again, transfer, but dignity and grace seem somehow an afterthought.

2020 reminded me that, for millions of Americans, there never has been a moral arc, let alone one that bends toward justice. Mid-year, as I wrote my racial autobiography—recalling my relationship to, and history with, issues of race and injustice—I remembered the myriad times I became aware of inequity and inequality based solely on race. Then, sparked by the unjustifiable deaths of so many persons of color, I embarked on a chilling journey into an oft hidden and largely ignored history of the United States. Once again, my naïve worldview was disrupted by the realization that, while I am aware of racial inequality, millions live with its brutality, hostility, and cruelty every moment of every day.

Finally, 2020 opened my eyes to the escalating war the moral arc is waging with hate, fear, and bitterness. In the midst of my learning journey, I came to know of the many centers of hate, not just in this country, but globally, that would have us believe there are castes of humanity; a hierarchy of people, and that millions believe other races to be sub-human. The year 2020, invited that hatred to reveal itself and fan the flames of war against the arc toward justice. In this war, I refuse to take up arms, and willingly proceed in my nakedness.

So, as I step tentatively into the new year, I do so feeling incredibly confused and extremely vulnerable. I do not believe the arc of the moral universe has been irreparably harmed by a single year in human history. I continue to believe, and I will work relentlessly to witness that arc, once again, bending toward justice.

Sep 282020
 

Perhaps it is human conceit, our vanity, that most blinds us.

I recently heard of a person whose goal is to make a great deal of money so he can give much of it away. Inherent in his view was a stated desire to reduce poverty around the world. But how much of his desire and tactics emanate from personal conceit?

Many years ago, I attended a one-day conference held in the Unity Temple, home to the Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Illinois. This magnificent house of worship was designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built between 1905 and 1908.

The keynote speaker, who took the stage just prior to lunch, was Satish Kumar, an elder and wisdom keeper from India. He spoke with deep conviction about the conceit inherent in the human species. He spoke of the American values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and the French dictum, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” He noted how each of them were purely human-centric. They include little regard for other living systems within the biosphere.

But it was what I learned immediately after his remarks that, many years later, still leaves me unsettled, and uncertain how to live my life. Attendees at the conference were assigned to tables for lunch, and, to my surprise and amazement, Satish Kumar took his seat directly across the table from me. The ensuing dialogue was replete with wisdom emanating from a man who has lived a life of deep inquiry. Near the end of our lunch, the topic turned to how we might deal with the desperate poverty that befalls hundreds of millions of humans. When I mentioned the helplessness I feel at not being able to give enough to make much difference, he turned to me and said something I will never forget: “Roger, what you in the west don’t understand is the solution to poverty is not to give more, but to take less.”

I am certain I still do not fully understand the complexity and implications of this simple statement, but I have come to believe in its deep truth. And these many years later, I still live a life that takes far too much, leaving far too little for the millions in need.

Sep 142020
 

“We never knew what we were going to see—what kicks (sneakers) were going to be on sale; what beef (conflict) was going to be cooking; what guads (boys) and shorties (girls) were going to be rocking (wearing)…We did not care if older or richer or Whiter Americans despised our nonstandard dress like our nonstandard Ebonics…Fresh baggy jeans sagging down…Dangling chains shining like our smiles. Piercings and tattoos and bold colors told the mainstream world how little we wanted to imitate them.”

Ibram X. Kendi, in “How to be an Antiracist”

As I read, I confronted prejudice, bias, and fear. I imagined myself surrounded by Kendi and his friends on “the Ave”—where Jamaica Avenue crosses 164th Street in Queens, NY—where he spent many hours during his teen years.

In those moments of imagining, I was not just uncomfortable, I was alone, out of place, and frightened. I was intimidated by the air of self-confidence, rebellion, and defiance. Suddenly, enveloped by an entirely foreign culture, there seemed nowhere to find a solid physical or emotional footing. I am quite certain my insecurity would have me judge with disapproval and seek an immediate escape.

Shortly after my imagined, but all too real, visit to that “foreign” land, some friends and I were discussing what to do in the face of dialects we find difficult to understand. One person asked, “Should there be a standard of communication—a linguistic English we all agree upon so we can communicate effectively?”

Assimilation—expecting other cultures to become like us—is something Caucasians have done for centuries from the moment we sailed from Europe and colonized the world. Other races, other ethnicities, were judged as something less until they learned our more “perfect and sophisticated” ways. How much beauty, wisdom, brilliance, and creativity did we crush as we trampled ways of knowing we found foreign? Had we, instead, listened with new ears—honored, and built upon, rather than burying, the wisdom that emanated from their traditions, languages, and cultures—would we inhabit a world today with sagacity beyond anything we could have imagined?

When we expect others to strip themselves of their ways of knowing—assimilate into our culture—we lose their unique perspectives. Wisdom that loses its intensity, veracity, and authenticity when translated into “perfect” English remains beyond our reach. Profound wisdom does not come to us easily. It comes through struggle. It is hard, difficult work. A businessman I knew, who traveled frequently, used to say, when you’re talking with someone whose first language is other than English, you need to “go ‘round the bush three times.” On the first journey, you hear and see only through what is most comfortable. It is not until the second and third trips that you begin the hard work of listening with new ears to understand the true meaning behind their words.

So, I return to my visit to “the Ave,” albeit imaginary. I wonder if I might see my insecurity and fear, not as signs of danger, but signposts pointing to the prospect of learning. If I could summon the courage to do the hard work of setting my fears aside and listening with new ears, might new ways of seeing, new insights into our humanity, be in the offing? When I expect others to speak perfectly in the language with which I am most comfortable, I vanquish their wisdom and impair the future.

Jun 042020
 

Changing the world, it is said, is an inside job.

I’ve used this tale before, but it bears repeating. A couple whose son suffers from horrible bouts of anger and fear take him to a Buddhist monk. “Would you,” they ask, “help rid our son of his demons?” The monk pauses and says, “bring your son back in one year.”

A year later the couple returns with their son and the monk begins the lessons. Grateful, but confused, the couple asks why the teaching had to wait a year. “Ah,” the monk replies, “I had first to learn how to rid myself of anger and fear.”

There is arduous work ahead to tear down the insidious walls of institutional racism…to claw at its massive foundations. I am committed to doing what I can to aid that effort, but, in the end, I cannot help anyone rid themselves of racism until I first learn how of rend it completely from my own life.

How could I not have racism written on my soul having been thoroughly immersed in the white neighborhoods and schools of my youth. How could I learn the harsh reality of racial inequality when my grade school had no one of color, and my high school graduating class had just a few? How could my biases not have been further obscured having been a member of my college’s student senate without people of color at the table? How can I live in my community where faces of color are few and far between, and not see racial inequality? Why has it taken to my elder years for me to fully grasp the depth and breadth of white privilege that paves the paths before me…and impedes them for those of color?

In fact, each of these lessons, and hundreds of others, have been critical courses in the curriculum of my life. I have just been too naïve and selfish to enroll.

After reading, among others, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Just Mercy by Bryon Stevenson, Antiracism by Ibram X Kendi, Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson, it becomes impossible to look in a mirror and remain oblivious to the biases that run so very deep.

Many years ago, I created a symbol as a reminder…a simple piece of cardboard holding two U.S. dimes. On the back it says:

Changing the World is an Inside Job
To change the world, you must shatter paradigms.
Begin with your own!

Should you see me sometime soon, I will try to have one for you as well.

These are difficult and often frightening times. But, for me, they are most difficult because I am being forced to acknowledge the demons inside. Even though I married a woman of a different race, I am aware I still harbor prejudice and racism. I must admit, and come to terms with, those biased, often repugnant views. It is only by tearing down those walls and clawing at those foundations that there will be any real hope for the future.

May 042020
 

What if the answer was deeper, less objective and more nuanced than a simple recounting of the number of times the earth orbited the sun since the day you arrived?

If I asked, instead, how creative you are, I would be confused and disheartened if you answered “5,” “23,” or “99.” Those are meaningless in the context of creativity. I would appreciate hearing that you love to write poetry or music. It would tell me a great deal to hear that your passions are theater and improv.  I could look more deeply into your soul if you say, “While I am not terribly accomplished, I take great pride in some of the pencil sketches I have attempted.” I was touched recently by a caller who told me she loves to write music, especially pieces that erupt from her deep sorrow and invite others to listen deeply to their own with less judgement.

Similarly, if I asked about your generosity, your capacity for love, and the extent to which you are trustworthy and honest, what would you tell me? Should I ask of your wisdom, I would gain insight even if you were to express doubts about the depth and breadth of yours.

With one exception, there is no upper limit on the qualities that define our character. Our admiration for another is in direct proportion to the extent of their creativity, generosity, love, trustworthiness, honesty, and wisdom.

The one exception, or course, is our culture’s, oft unspoken, acceptable upper limit on the number of years we have lived. There is no remark about creativity, generosity, love or wisdom equivalent to being “over the hill” regarding age.

What would it mean if the answer to how old you are was similarly nuanced? What if, instead, how old you are is defined by the character you cultivated during the years you have lived? To which, of course, there is no limit.

What if, instead of telling me your age, you were willing to admit you are old enough to know the limits of your knowledge; that you are coming to understand the power of questions and are less compelled by the veracity of opinions—yours and others. To what extent would you be willing to share you are old enough to focus more on what is left for you to be, and less about what is left for you to do?

I would love to hear you have learned the power of compassion and how you might use yours to ease the journey of others; that you are discovering, when you are with another during a time of deep sadness and grief, it is not within your power to fix, but absolutely within your power to be fully present—and that that is enough. Might you also admit you have less fear about your legacy and are taking comfort in knowing that such a thing is unknowable.

Should we meet sometime soon, and I ask how old you are, know that I do not care a whit about the years you have lived. What I care to discern is the extent to which you have fully lived during your many revolutions of the planet Earth, and developed character worthy of the time you have been given.

Apr 262020
 

The increasingly pervasive, oft vicious exchanges that permeate our lives, whether they be in person, in the media, or on social media, can easily overwhelm. Those, on top of trying to survive a global pandemic, make daily life ever more challenging.

The human brain is a marvelous, complex and adaptive organ that enables us to observe the world through our five senses and use those inputs to create a story of the world and how it works. We use those stories to guide us as we navigate our lives. But what happens if the stories, and our interpretations, are wrong or misguided? How often do we navigate poorly?

I often misinterpret the world and find myself navigating poorly. When I do, I am thankful to discover a beacon that helps me find my way. I am captivated whenever I am presented with a story, viewpoint, or interpretation that call some belief into question and I find myself exclaiming, “If that’s true…it changes everything!”

As examples of how we often create stories that can derail our lives, I present Kanizsa’s Triangle and The Sierpinski Triangle.

Kanizsa’s Triangle (Figure 1), drawn by Gaetano Kanizsa in the 1950s, arranges six independent green shapes to make your brain believe there are two triangles where there are none. Hundreds of times each day we take disparate pieces of sensory information and turn fragments into stories that are often misinformed, or totally untrue. We make political decisions based on sound bites. We treat people differently based on first impressions. We react to loved ones based on incomplete understanding.

The Sierpinski triangle (Figure 2) can be generated by starting at the red dot in Figure 3 and following two rules: pick one of the numbered dots at random, and, move from where you are halfway to that point to make an additional dot. If you do that thousands of times, you will always get the Sierpinski Triangle…always! That is astounding and terrifying.

It is astounding that two simple rules can create such complexity and beauty. It is terrifying because, if we follow those rules, we will remain in that pattern for all of eternity. How often do we find ourselves, often unconsciously, following rules in our lives and businesses? Those rules add beauty and complexity for a while, but we seldom want to remain in those patterns for all of eternity. How many of us, because of “shelter in place” during the COVID-19 pandemic, had to change normal “rules,” and how many of us will admit we found at least some of the new patterns refreshing?

The philosopher, Paul-Michel Foucault wrote, “The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” If today is the beginning, what will each of us do tomorrow to become someone we are not today? What might I allow myself to discover that requires me to cry, “If that’s true…it changes everything?”

Apr 022020
 

The woman on the other end of the call tried desperately to speak through anxiety and a torrent of tears. “Take a deep breath.” I said, “I want to understand what you are facing.”

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m confused. My life is falling apart. I tried to call my therapist, but her mailbox is full, so I can’t even leave a message. I don’t know what to do.” The tears and anxiety returned.

“Why are you feeling so overwhelmed?” I asked. Trying to hold back tears, she replied, “This virus has turned my world upside down. I have two young children and I have to be everything: mom, teacher, cook, housekeeper. I’m drowning. I try to do it all, but I can’t. I feel like a total failure. There isn’t even any time during the day to care for myself.”

I continued, “First, I am in awe of your herculean efforts to try to do everything.” “Thank you,” she replied, “That’s really nice to hear.”

 “In addition to attempting everything, are you expecting perfection?” I asked, suspecting the answer. “Of course. I take pride in doing things well, and right now, I’m failing at everything,” she said through a renewed wave of tears. “So, in addition to not checking everything off your list, you’re piling on guilt for not being perfect.” “Yes,” she responded quietly.

 “Can we agree that these are extraordinary times, and that nothing is what it was a few weeks ago? These times demand that each of us discover new ways to be in the world. What would it take for you to accept you can no longer be perfect in everything, and be gentle with yourself for the imperfections?” She said it would be difficult.

“I understand, but here’s a thought. It’s the end of March. What would happen if you picked a date, say June 1, and decided to quarantine your judgements and guilt until then? What if, for the next two months, you decided, since life is crazy, imperfection is what is needed. You can go back to being perfect after June 1, if you so choose. But for now, can it be okay to be imperfect? If there are dishes in the sink, it’s fine…clothes to be washed, oh well…beds aren’t made, so be it…every school assignment isn’t finished, pick it up again tomorrow. Could you quarantine the judgements for 60 days and be kind and gentle with yourself?” After a short pause, she said “I think I could, but it would be hard.” I reminded her everything is difficult right now.

I asked, of all the things not getting done, what hurts the most. “With all the other things I feel I have to do, I’m forgetting to be Mom. My children need that more than anything and it’s last on the list.” “So,” I pressed, “if you let other things be imperfect, do you think you might find time each day to play with your children? Just have fun?” In a truly joyful voice, she said it sounded wonderful.

In the end, she told me she marked June 1 on her calendar and was putting everything aside that afternoon to spend time being the Mom her children need. Then she said, “Can it be okay to be imperfect in other things so I can be a good Mom? Absolutely!” Suddenly, it was me in tears.