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.

Jun 152020
 

“This is usually where the desire to dismiss claims of racial oppression come from—it just doesn’t make sense to you so it cannot be right.”

                                                Ijeoma Oluo in So you want to talk about race

I can be justly accused of remaining silent for far too long when words condemning racism should have been spoken. I can, and must, find the courage to speak up whenever and wherever racism enters my world.

However, I am coming to learn the most subtle and deceptive forms of racism erupt, not from the world around me, but from the world within.

In the past weeks, people across the globe have struggled to face the senseless, persistent, and horrific murders of BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) in this country—and find ways to end the atrocities. I have watched and listened, trying to take in the stories of pain, anger, sorrow, and resentment that have filled my news and newsfeed. I listen, and think, as Oluo says, “it just doesn’t make sense…so it cannot be right.”

Of course it doesn’t make sense. How could I possibly even begin to understand the raw emotions coming from a person whose life I have not lived? How could I possibly feel what it is like to wake every morning in a skin that is not white? How could I possibly know the sheer frustration and despair of facing a world replete with obstacles that prevent me from being successful, and inflict constant, lingering fear in me and those I love.

It does not make sense to me, but I cannot dismiss that it does make sense to someone who has lived that life. The only way for me to acknowledge the pain, anger, sorrow, and resentment is listen with new ears. I must listen, as best I can, to stories that are in stark contradiction to my own lived experience. I must acknowledge the validity and authenticity of all stories. It is exceedingly difficult because my day-to-day privilege holds at bay the horrors faced by BIPOC. It is the difficulty of the work that makes it that much more necessary.

As I have endeavored these past weeks to listen with new ears, words and stories come at me with new meaning and urgency…and new worlds open before me. Perhaps, more importantly, I find new worlds opening within me.

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.

Apr 202020
 

Does the species Home sapiens belong? Do we have a rightful place among the billions of other species that inhabit the astonishing biosphere in which we find ourselves? Would Mother Nature, Gaia, Pachamama, or whatever name you bestow upon this, our home, be better off without us?

I have contemplated these questions for many years and have concluded that none get to the core question that must be asked of us: do we even want to belong?

Make no mistake, we want to be here. We certainly want the species to exist, but existing is not the same as belonging. How many people have found themselves in a community where they existed, but never felt as though they truly belonged? To belong to a community means you are completely immersed in, and willingly abide by, the traditions, ethos, attitudes, and tenets of that community. The moment you breach the culture, you find yourself very much alone—on the outside, looking in.

Charles Eisenstein, in his remarkable work, “The Ascent of Humanity,” documents the history of Homo sapiens as an endless journey to ascend from our animal origins.

“From the very beginning, fire reinforced the concept of a separate human realm. The circle of the campfire divided the world into two parts: the safe, domestic part, and the wild. Here was safety, keeping predators at bay. Outside the circle of firelight was the other, the wild, the unknown.”

As a species, we abhor the thought we are nothing more than animals. One of the most savage things we can say about another human is that he (or she) is “nothing more than an animal.”

Animals are wild, we are sophisticated. They are cruel, we are kind and generous. Nature remains dirty and dangerous, humanity has produced purity, safety, and beauty. We speak, write, and sing of the beauty and wonder of nature, but we do so from an emotional distance. Even during temporary incursions, we enter, always certain of an escape back to the safety of our villages. Most of us would be horrified to find ourselves “there” with no means of escape.

In nature, every species faces times of peril. And when they do, they do what they have always done to protect themselves: flee, remain and build herd immunity, or adjust to the new environment. I am not aware of a species that races to find sources of water to extinguish a forest fire. I have not heard of a species that builds levees for protection from massive flooding. No species, to my knowledge, ever sought a vaccine for a threatening virus. In the end, often accompanied by horrific loss of life, nature finds ways to live with the “enemy.”

My answer to the question of whether we want to belong is, we do not. In the face of COVID-19, SARS, or H1N1, if the traditions, ethos, attitudes and tenets of the community require us to simply flee, remain and build herd immunity, or adjust to the new environment, thanks, but no thanks. We will use our innovation and creativity to fight. We will stop at nothing less than annihilation of the enemy. In the face of H5N1 we killed tens of millions of birds.

Do we belong? If, unlike other species, our response to any challenge is annihilation, I wonder if the biosphere might be healthier without us. Perhaps, the recent onslaught of potential and real pandemics is Mother Nature’s way of telling us we are on the outside looking in.

Oct 042019
 

Note: The following will be published in the November/December issue of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The morning of September 12, the world of Neighbors magazines was torn apart. Kate Sullivan, who, with her husband Tim, published Neighbors of Batavia magazine, was ripped from our lives. The vision they shared—helping communities discover their heart and soul—has had a profound impact on Batavia. A colleague, who new Kate well, observed that she never made friends, she simply expanded her family. We will all miss her greatly.

In the last issue of Neighbors of Batavia, based on Bill McKibben’s insights in his recent book, Falter, I touched on three trends—environmental devastation, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering—each of which will dramatically alter our future. (This essay is also a recent blog entitled “Opening Door and Windows – Part 1)

In that essay, I suggested that if we were in a burning building, and the occupants were in denial, we could open doors and windows so, upon realization of the fire, people could escape. What might it mean, I asked, to “open doors and windows” in our communities, so we might escape the approaching unintended consequences? Upon reflection, I realize that metaphor fails. As opposed to a burning building, what if there is no escape as heat begins to scorch our souls?

I am reminded of a long-ago moment as I ascended an ancient volcano that now forms a portion of the island of Oahu. In Hawai’i, little land is wasted when hillsides are transformed into neighborhoods. Narrow stretches of parched, red dirt, punctuated by occasional tufts of dry grass, are often all that separate homes from roadways. As streets wind their way up the mountainside, there is typically little safety for a lone pedestrian, with cars flying by on their way to who-knows-where.

One afternoon, I noticed an elderly gentleman tending to the small patch of earth that separated his home from the rest of the world. His was garden-green and lined with a row of delicate flowers—a small, yet beautiful, oasis. I walked the opposite curb so as not to trample his creation.

As I approached, he looked up with a smile, pointed to his “lawn” and said, “Please walk here…it’s safer.” To this kindly gentleman, a stranger’s safety was more important than the stretch of nature to which he tended so carefully.

Of the effects sure to erupt from our creations, the most devastating will likely be massive human dislocation. Environmental disruption will force millions to flee ancestral homes and search for livelihoods in distant lands. Artificial Intelligence will decimate traditional careers and throw additional millions onto the street in search of new ways to feed their families. When terrified neighbors, or fragile families from distant lands, find their way to my doorstep, what then? Should I fear for my soul if I someday choose my needs over theirs; if my own terror overwhelms my obligation to clothe the naked and feed the poor?

In those moments, what would it mean, for me to turn to strangers in need, look them in the eye and say, “Please walk here…it’s safer”? What am I prepared to give up in order to protect the humanity of another? How much should I be expected to give? As I face such heart-wrenching decisions, how courageous and vulnerable am I willing to be?

As this war rages inside me, pitting me and my safety against my yearning to help others, I am reminded of the wisdom given to us by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish tradition: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” These questions tear at me.

Then, as I recall recent events, I realize I needn’t rely on ancient wisdom. Guidance is close at hand—the path illumined by the life of Kate Sullivan. Perhaps I needn’t help neighbors or those from distant lands. In those moments, I simply need to expand my family.

Aug 052019
 

Fair warning. For those who look to these posts for comfort and reconciliation, this piece is likely an exception.

Several recent books and conversations emboldened me to peer some distance into the future. The vista is, at best, sobering.

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who has been writing about global warming for more than 30 years, recently published his latest volume: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? In it, McKibben expands his perspective by examining not just the environment, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

A friend once cautioned, in every human endeavor, intended consequences sometimes happen; unintended consequences always happen. The consequences we intend for artificial intelligence are more efficient decision making, less repetitive work, greater safety, and lower costs to produce the necessities of life. However, did you know the most common job description in the United States today is “driver?” What happens when autonomous vehicles force millions who call themselves drivers to find new sources of income? How many of our neighbors will suddenly struggle to pay their bills?

Genetic engineering could force us to abandon everything we know about what it means to be human. While “germline” genetic engineering—altering heritable human traits—remains illegal globally, should it someday become acceptable, we could begin to design our children. Since only the wealthy will have that capacity, McKibben wonders if we might end up with two classes of humanity: the wealthy who have been designed to excel in every facet of being human, and the rest who become second class.

Similarly, environmental challenges could force tens of millions across the globe to abandon coastal areas and leave farmland suddenly incapable of supporting crops. If that should happen, people flocking to the U.S. southern border might number in the millions per month rather than a hundred thousand. What then? If U.S. coastal regions become uninhabitable, where will those millions go. My niece, who works on environmental issues, suggested the upper Midwest will become an attractive destination. What happens if Batavia suddenly finds thousands at its “southern border” seeking refuge?

I recommend McKibben’s work, with a substantial caveat. He suggests a “solution,” but it’s easier for me to believe in fairy dust. A wise gambler, he submits, after winning a comfortable amount in a casino, will walk away; she has enough for a comfortable future and is satisfied. McKibben suggests humanity has had a good run at the casino we call Mother Earth. We have won a great deal; enough, if properly distributed, to provide a comfortable life for the species. It’s time, he suggests, we walk away and be satisfied with our winnings. No further environmental damage, and a halt to development of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

If that’s the best hope for our salvation, please pass the fairy dust.

I was discussing McKibben’s views with some intelligent, astute friends. “Certainly,” they assured me, “someone will figure each of these things out.” It reminds me just how many people have their heads in the sand. They profess an understanding of potential disruptions, but, in the end, are in denial that any will substantially impact their lives.

So, what to do in the face of those who are in denial? Many years ago, an author asked what you might do if you were in a building you knew to be on fire, while other occupants were in denial. You could, she suggested, run around yelling “FIRE!” However, you would likely be labeled a crackpot. Alternatively, you could open the doors and windows, so when others are convinced of the danger, they can find their way out.

In the years since that metaphor was revealed to me, I have wondered what it might mean in our communities to “open the doors and windows” so, when our neighbors become convinced of coming disruptions, they can find their way out. I’m not sure I have an answer, but I’ll have some thoughts in a future post.

Jul 142018
 

Having completed nearly 67 years of this human journey, I can recount hundreds of gatherings I have summoned into existence. I wonder what, if anything, has been accomplished. In a world heavily dependent on to-do lists and action items, most people believe there is little hope of change unless a gathering concludes with a list of items to be accomplished, with attendant assignments and due dates. If, after six months or a year, we cannot identify and quantify how the world changed, the gathering was clearly a waste of time.

Einstein reminded us that “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” When we set out to change the world with well-worn thinking, the solutions will leave us wanting. If, on the other hand, you change the way a person thinks, they can’t help but act differently. What we can never know is how new thinking will evolve into new actions and ways of being in the world. They are unpredictable and unknowable. Further, since inquisitives continually challenge their thinking, the new ways in which they show up, and actions they take, can never be understood as the result of any one interaction with the Universe.

The human brain is too puny, and the Universe too complex, to even begin to imagine the implications of the things we do. The butterfly effect informs us that small perturbations in initial conditions change the course of history over time and distance in ways that are unknowable and unpredictable. Dee Hock once said, “Every action we take has intended and unintended consequences. The intended ones sometimes happen, the unintended ones always happen!”

Most wisdom traditions echo the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Do your work, then step back.”

In moments when I feel disappointment with the outcome of things I attempt, a friend reminds me my worth is unrelated to the results of my efforts. “Why is it,” she asks again and again, “you cannot know you have value absent of accomplishments?”

I will continue to summon gatherings. I will endeavor to be faithfully inquisitive and open to new ways of understanding the world, and I will invite those who join me to do the same. Then I will attempt, as difficult as it is, to step back and trust in the generative, creative nature of the Universe.

Jun 252018
 

Even at the quantum level, as separate and distinct, a single particle has little value. It is only when they are in relationship to other quantum entities that they form the universe.

So too for humanity. Absent our intimate relationship to all things, we are nothing.

As I write, since I feel my fingers on the keyboard, I imagine the computer and me as separate and distinct. However, if I were to pick up a writing instrument to pen these same words, the experience and result would be different. The computer and I co-create. The world is altered by my relationship to even the most inanimate of objects.

As I trek through the woods, a tree ahead appears distinct from me. I know where my body “ends” and the leaves, branches and trunk “begin.” But do I? There is a symbiotic relationship between us. The oxygen I inhale in this moment was likely “exhaled” by that living organism moments ago. The carbon dioxide I release into the atmosphere is vital to the tree’s future. Each season, a tree will take thousands of gallons of water from the soil and release it into the air as water vapor. Those molecules return to Earth as rain, and to me through the foods I eat and the water I drink. The tree and I are in deep relationship; I am biologically part of that tree, and it a part of me.

Even thoughts originating in my cerebral cortex, which my ego insists make me distinct from others, are proof of relationship not separation. Virtually every neural pathway in my brain has been formed through experience with, and mental formulations that originate in, the world outside of me. Every sound I hear, article I touch, morsel I taste and object I see, alters my relationship with the world and changes the entity I thought myself to be.

My emotional being, as well, is intimately related to, and formed by, the world around me. Every story of pain and heartache I encounter in the lives of friends, or from a call to the suicide hotline, alters my emotional sense of the world.

There is little we own…little for which we can take credit. Every word, every thought, every feeling, emerges from ideas and experiences gifted to us by others. Nor is our ability to hold, synthesize and retell them ours to own. They, too, are gifts we have learned from others.

If I search deeply for the “I” I believe is me, I soon discover there isn’t one. The harder I look, the more intense my gaze, the more I discover that everything I think of as me, was formed through an infinity of relationships. I am nothing more than a confluence of influences—simply the intersection of the fields through which this collection of human cells has traveled. I am, simply put, the result of trillions of quantum particles in relationship.

Western culture moves in harmony with the sacredness and importance of the individual. We go to any lengths, and put many in jeopardy, to save one. But the moment I drift from the sacredness of life to the importance of my own, I excise myself from humanity. I allow myself to become isolated, distinct and apart. My thoughts and ideas are wrenched from their rightful place within the ecosystem where they were formed, and where they can be challenged, debated, refined and potentially discarded. Ego takes over and I elevate my ideas to a place of superiority and rightness.

The Sufi mystic and poet Hafitz once said “I am a hole in the flute through which God’s breath flows.” At best, the confluence of thoughts, ideas, and experiences I refer to as myself is no more than a capacity through which the Universe itself is trying to be seen. If I can remain true to simply being the hole, and refrain from imagining myself to be the breath, or the player of the flute, only then is there hope.

Jun 042018
 

Money separates us from life and devalues humanity.

I recall an exercise used in a philosophy class. “Think of a problem in your life, any problem regardless of its difficulty or seeming intractability. Is there an amount of money that would solve the problem for you?” the professor would ask. Inevitably, students would find some amount to rid them of the struggle, even though the sum would usually allow them to flee the problem rather than solve it.

Today, many live with such wealth, when we face collective problems, it is easier to write a check than roll up our sleeves and get to work. We no longer face the harsh, but very real and essential, nature and wisdom of life. We pay someone else to face it on our behalf, which eases our guilt, but robs us of life’s extraordinary wisdom.

Before humans invented money, everything of value was perishable. Wealth was in the form of livestock and plants that could not be stored, so the fragility of life was apparent every day. If the tribe suffered a setback, the skills and talents of every member were required for survival.

With the advent of money, life became more secure. With its fragile nature at bay, families could survive outside the safety of the tribe. Should a family face a setback, there was a reserve to protect them, at least for a time. The lives of individuals became less important. It was, I fear, a pivotal point in our alienation.

Throughout much of human history male members of the tribe were the hunters. Men were judged not only on their skill, but also the wisdom they showed by carefully taking only what the tribe needed for survival, and nothing more.

When I was young, fathers—most mothers I knew did not work—disappeared every morning into an unknown and frightening jungle and returned with their bounty. Unlike earlier days, when I could take pride in my father’s warrior skill by witnessing his kill and learn the wisdom of non-excess, the bounty he brought home disappeared silently into the vault of some local bank. Excess was celebrated, not avoided. The value of my father’s heroic efforts was stolen from me, and I was taught to genuflect at the altar of excess.

And, what of the efforts of those who volunteer? They trade time, expertise, and wisdom for the satisfaction of knowing they have contributed to the general good? Gross Domestic Product is the measure we use to value human effort in every country in the world. Tell me, where are volunteer hours, and the substantial gains in human society, counted? They are not. When we tally that with which we make global decisions, the labor of those unpaid doesn’t count. This knowledge weighs heavy on my heart since there is little money that flows to my family for much of the work I currently do.

One image of the prophet Mohammad, founder of Islam, is of a man in great emotional pain over the loss of values in his tribe. With the founding of Mecca—a highly successful center for trade and commerce—individual families gathered enough excess wealth to protect themselves. The need to care for the tribe vanished. The poor and infirmed were forgotten. It was wealth, not poverty, that created the gulf between those who have and those who do not and called Mohammad and his founders to a new way.

Even Jesus, is it said, admonished us that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

I fear that, unless someone calls us to a new way yet again, wealth will eventually destroy us.

Apr 092018
 

A friend, working his way through my book, Questions that Matter, had just read, and was thinking about, the essay “Patiently Waiting for Me.” In the song “I’m Movin On,” country artists Rascal Flatts sing “Finally I see…life has been patiently waiting for me.” In the essay, I ask if the “me” life is waiting for is someone I have the power to create, as a sculptor fashioning form out of amorphous clay, or someone I was always meant to be, as when curtains are parted to reveal a stunning landscape? In the end, I find the latter metaphor more trustworthy and provocative.

As we talked, he explained his belief; as we live our lives, we discover several things we can do well, then we choose one of those to become.

However, that was not what I was thinking or feeling when I wrote the essay a few years ago. The “me” life is waiting for is not found in the things I do. Life, instead, is patiently waiting for me to find, unlock and live into the essential, deeply authentic person I was sent here to be. Once I discover that essential soul, I can live it into nearly any role I choose.

As we live our life, we spin a thread. That thread is uniquely ours…it has never been spun before…and it will never, ever be spun again. The strength and power of that thread is directly related to our ability and willingness to discover, and live into, our most authentic self.

And what does that mean? It is said that Michelangelo, when asked how he could carve the magnificent statue of David from a block of marble, replied “I chip away everything that does not look like David.” Life, if we live it courageously, is a continual opportunity to chip away everything that does not resemble our truly authentic self.

How is it we chip away that which does not resemble us? A friend once counseled that the community must name our gifts since, due to their innate and intimate nature, they are often invisible to us. That which comes most naturally is easy to deny. “Anyone can do that,” is a normal retort to anyone who holds up a mirror to help us see in ourselves what they see. If we quiet the voice of denial, those who know us and love us—I call them truthtellers—will help us chip away some of that which does not resemble our authentic self.

Beyond that, we learn who we are, and who we are not, when we find the courage to go fearlessly into the world. It will rough us up. It will frequently break our hearts and bring us to tears. The human journey is not easy. Pain and sorrow are difficult, but essential in the discovery of human wisdom. When our hearts break, we learn something more about generosity, kindness, empathy, caring and love. And when we do, more of who we are not falls away and we come closer to what is true and authentic.

For me, many things have fallen away, and essential pieces remain. My grandmother always commented on my willingness to show love and affection. That remains. I cherish my ability to challenge others to see in new ways, and I am, and have always loved being, a teacher. Those are pieces of who I am, not what I do. Those essential fragments, when I find the confidence and courage, are the ground in which everything I do is planted and takes root.

When we discover the magnificence of our life and live that into the world, we realize the thread our life is spinning is golden and priceless. And when we live that thread into the world. we discover, as I have said before in these pages, we have the ability to reweave the very fabric of the Universe.