What would you do if you spent an hour in an art gallery, found an exhibition of work that astounded you, moved you, made you laugh and cry and think so hard that you were exhausted and elated by the time you’d seen all the pieces … and a week later you found out that the artist was a chauvinist jerk, or a misogynist, or guilty of sexual harassment? Can you still admire the man’s work? Or has everything he’s done as an artist become so tainted that it’s no longer worthy of a spot in the gallery?
Can you still enjoy a Harvey Weinstein film? A Woody Allen film? The work of Dustin Hoffman? Kevin Spacey? Bill Cosby?
It’s weird, isn’t it? The curtain gets pulled back and people we may have thought highly of turn out to be assholes. Or worse. Maybe they’re assaulters. Rapists.
Still, there’s this body of work out there: movies we love, television shows we love, albums we love, books we love. Has it all become shit in light of the moral failures of these men (let’s face it, it’s mostly men doing the harassing)? Does it depend on how great the failure is? Is there a scale?
While I would never, never, never attempt to in ANY way excuse these moral failings/crimes, I think there are issues here worth exploring before we simply relegate all of these creative works to the entertainment trash bin of history.
It almost seems a given that men who are driven to seek fame have intense power issues. And once they achieve it, once the adulation starts to puff up their egos, rises them to “rock star” status, is it really a surprise that they abuse their celebrity? Especially if they start getting treated like little gods who can do no wrong. Power corrupts, as we know.
Even folks we might be tempted to valorize can fall mightily. Right, Bill Clinton? JFK? MLK? Here’s your power and … whoops, you abused it. Whaddaya know? It takes a strong man indeed to react with restraint, remain faithful to his wife, when he has scores of young, beautiful women falling at his feet. (In Weinstein’s case–and others’ who are guilty of assholery–they weren’t “falling at his feet,” but rather they were vulnerable in the shadow of his perceived power.) The onus of responsible, moral choice remains on the man, clearly, but I don’t think it’s a great shock that the area of sex and sexual attraction is an Achilles heel for most men. Kingdoms, literally, have fallen.
Was it a mistake for us to have supposed these beloved (by many) figures were particularly good, decent, moral men? It seems pretty safe to assume that a fair amount of the art we enjoy is being made by assholes of varying degrees … but, in many cases, we just don’t know it. No doubt, there are authors of great works of literature written long ago who we will never know were abusive jackoffs.
We now live in an age where it’s getting harder and harder to have secrets. Hell, ya can’t even run a stoplight at 3 a.m. without some damn camera taking your picture. Phones with cameras are everywhere. News spreads Twitter-fast. And, while men still have way too much institutional power, the voices of women are, more and more, being heard, respected, and believed. Men can’t just dismiss women as “hysterical” and get away with a wink and a nod. These are all good things (except the red-light cameras) for most of us, but not so good for men who believe they ought to be able to behave badly and never be held to account.
The #MeToo movement is a hopeful sign of our times.
We’re likely at a cultural turning point. More and more diversity (of race, gender, and sexual orientation) in our world means ever-more diversity in our businesses, politics, and art. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism … these ideas have been falling out of favor in the wider world for decades and this will probably only accelerate. The kinds of values and attitudes that helped “create” men who thought they could touch any woman or girl they wanted because of their status as an actor or director or artist or politician are ever-diminishing. This, too, is all to the good. As it should be.
But we still have the creative legacies of many fucked-up men; quite an archive of art made by assholes that’s unlikely to disappear in its entirety any time soon.
Films are not singular efforts. Weinstein may be an unforgivable monster, but if writers and actors and directors have made something memorable that happens to bear his name … do we refuse to watch it? Do we never watch “Rain Man,” or “Kramer vs Kramer,” or “The Graduate” again?
Tell me, where’s the line for you? How bad can a man behave and yet you are still able to admire the body of work he leaves behind? Is there a way in which you would feel comfortable separating the jerk from his work?
This is not me trying to convince you of anything. I, of course, understand that for any point I might make supporting my view there is a counterpoint tearing it apart. I’m not really interested in debates.
This is simply me telling you what I believe and why. Nothing more.
When I watch a show about animals or space, about life’s origins or the origins of the universe, I can get downright tingly. I can’t help being moved when I see the majesty of the heavens and the astonishing variety and complexity of life on planet Earth. Nebulae, the Aurora Borealis, spiraling galaxies, transparent fish, flying lizards, bugs that walk on water … these are awe-inspiring sights to be sure.
But, while watching these shows, I have never once thought, “Gosh, isn’t it neat what random forces can produce given enough time?”
I’ve heard the story where Matter is King. It starts like this: “Once upon a time, all matter was infinitely dense.”
That’s right, kids. Every bit of matter and space in this universe—you know, the universe that contains TWO TRILLION GALAXIES (this is 10 times more than the previously believed 200 billion galaxies)—was once so very teeny tiny that it couldn’t be seen. It had NO SIZE. Let’s not forget that each of those 2 trillion galaxies contains 100 billion stars, more or less.
So, there it was: all the matter in the universe just hiding out in nothingness, smaller than a single atom.
How’d it get there? Where’d it come from? Why was it so itsy bitsy?
No one can tell you with any certainty.
“It popped into existence from nothing, out of nowhere,” is one answer science gives. It seems to be the most plausible one out there.
Okay. So, this is different than Genesis 1 how? Oh yeah, no Creator. Now it makes SO much more sense.
The fact is, both of these ideas, the idea of God and the idea that everything came from nothing, require us to believe fairly nutty things that absolutely CANNOT be proven.
My God-view requires faith. Just as the everything-from-nothing-view requires faith.
Here’s where I admit that the idea of God is sort of whacky. I mean, if we’re going to approach it rationally, we have to ask where God came from, right?
Well, no. No, we don’t. If you’re going to propose that everything came from nothing (without any proof), then I think I get to go ahead and assume the existence of God without having to come up with an origin story.
For me, God is the one utterly inexplicable thing that makes everything else possible.
The First Cause of life must be living. The First Cause of consciousness must be conscious. The First Cause of intellect must be intelligent.
Look at the observable universe. It’s so bloody amazing.
Everything is made of invisible particles in constant motion. THAT is amazing. Your smartphone looks like it’s stationary, a solid object, but it’s composed of madly spinning particles, as are you, as am I.
That’s insane! Yet I believe it.
Interesting fact—I believe in atoms. And so, probably, do you.
But why do we believe in atoms?
Can you prove they exist? Not without an electron microscope, my friend.
Unless you’re a renowned scientist working at a super high-tech lab, you’ve never looked into an electron microscope. They cost nearly one million dollars, so I guarantee neither PoDunk High nor Big Town University have one in their science wing for you to play with on your lunch hour.
You and I believe in atoms because we read about them in a book, or maybe we saw some blurry image of one in a YouTube video. The truth is, we believe in atoms, even though they are entirely outside of our sphere of experience; atoms are an article of faith—a thing we believe in even though we can’t prove it. I understand that we’re confident that someone can prove it, but we can’t and that’s my point. We’re relying on the testimony of others, which requires faith.
Modern science, with all its impressive gadgetry and seemingly limitless cosmic imagination, still can’t give a satisfactory explanation of what human consciousness is.
When it comes to the question, “What is gravity?” our friends at NASA are forced to answer, we don’t know!
So, the most fundamental things we should understand about ourselves and the world we inhabit are fucking mysteries. Surprise!
Another thing, dear reader. I believe in God because of you. Yes, you. You are a freaking stunning, mind-blowing miracle.
Here’s something about you that maybe you haven’t thought of. You were inevitable. Just as you are. Your eye color, your height, your personality. Why do I say this?
Because YOU ARE. When the universe unfolded you were already an inevitability: all the conditions being what they were, this moment in time with you in it reading this absurd essay right where you are … it all HAD TO HAPPEN. Because it did.
I take it further and say, you are an INTENTION of the universe, of the God that forged your consciousness in the infinite past.
I believe in God because:
The “purely material” answers are unsatisfactory on every level.
Faith in God is no less crazy than the faith it takes to believe everything came from nothing.
The marvel and awe of the cosmic universe and this living planet make no sense without an intelligent being to observe them.
Everything about the observable universe is infused with intelligence, from humankind to trees to ticks, it is all bound together in an unfathomable symbiosis.
If this is the one and only universe, the odds that it would come up with you and me and all this life are as good as zero. And the fact that one of science’s answer to that dilemma is to suggest an infinite number of universes (so that, of course, one of them would have to result in us, right?), smells of desperation (and not a single one of those “other” universes can be demonstrated to exist).
A Christian, a Buddhist, and an atheist walk into a church.
That may sound like the opening line to a joke, but it actually reflects the reality of what’s going on in my church on any given Sunday.
My church has no religious creed or doctrine, it holds up no deity or faith as “the one and only truth for all humanity.” Those who attend are welcome to bring along the deity of their choice, just as they are welcome to bring their atheism, agnosticism, etcetera.
My atheist friends and acquaintances are very sure about what they don’t believe. They absolutely do not believe in any kind of god or goddess or spirit creating things or watching over the affairs of humanity. They do not believe in an afterlife. None of that should be surprising, as that would be the very definition of an atheist, yes?
What may be surprising to some, though, is that these non-believing folks are not in the least bothered by the fact that many of their fellow congregants do believe in God, or a goddess, or any of a variety of spiritual notions. For these atheists, it doesn’t inspire scorn, anger, or mockery. They’re not just okay with the faith of their peers, they respect, appreciate, and celebrate it.
Weird, huh? But should it be?
Is there really any good reason that modern believers and non-believers should be adversaries? I would propose that what they have in common matters so much more than what they don’t.
Our desire to love and be loved, our mutual searches for survival, connection, purpose, well-being, happiness, security, and pleasure—put simply, our shared humanity—ought to unify us to an infinitely greater degree than our various philosophies, religious and non-religious, divide us.
First, let’s tell the truth.
We all know that a lot of horrifying shit has been done in the name of some God or other. Witch hunts, crusades, wars, jihad … lots of bloodshed in the name of someone’s God. So, let’s not deny that truth.
Let’s also acknowledge that horrifying shit has been done by folks who wanted to outlaw religion: Mussolini, Stalin, Mao. Now, it’s a stretch to say these men were seeking to “spread atheism,” but it is certain their intent was not forcing people to believe in any religion’s God.
When we boil it down, deep evil is usually done in the name of power and greed—religion or non-religion are simply window dressing. That’s the truth about that.
Here’s another truth: people can arrive at either benevolence or savagery through both religious thinking and atheistic thinking.
Here, for example, is a theology that leads to evil:
My God is the only truth and all other ways of seeing the world are not just wrong but an offense to my angry, jealous God.
Therefore, if you do not follow my God I will have to kill you to make the world a better place. It’s my sacred duty. If I can’t convert you, you must die.
And here is an atheistic philosophy leading to evil:
Humans are nothing more than smart apes. Love is an illusion brought on by chemical reactions. Morality is nothing more than a social construct. The survival of the most fit (or simply my personal gratification, regardless of the harm it may cause to others) should be the only appropriate guiding principle.
Therefore, if misusing or even exterminating a person or an entire group of people (Jews, Tutsis, the infirm, the mentally inferior), helps to ensure the survival (or gratification) of the superior person or group, it is not only permissible, but wise. Any other way is self-annihilating sentimentality.
Here is a theology that leads to love:
Life is from God, God is love, and all people are children of God.
Therefore, the highest thing I can do is love life and people.
And an atheism that leads to love:
We get just this one shot at life, which makes it a precious gift of immeasurable value.
Therefore, the highest thing I can do is love life and people.
I have to admit, when I read social media “pile ons” where atheists are bashing Christians for being ignorant, backward, hateful hypocrites … it makes me very sad. Not because there aren’t Christians who fit this description (there certainly are), but because it is such a narrow-minded, thoughtless approach that discounts the millions and millions of magnificent, loving, compassionate, intelligent, luminous beings that would call themselves Christians (or Catholics, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or Whatever Religious Persuasion).
It’s not religious people that suck. It’s people that suck, some religious and some not.
In the same way, there are people you’re very glad to have as friends, neighbors, and co-workers because they’re kind, thoughtful, smart, funny … some of them are religious, some are not.
Being a human being on planet Earth is hard. Even under the best of circumstances, this life is going to beat the shit out of you many times, make you physically ill, disappoint you, and break your heart. Inevitably, it will kill everyone you love and, unsurprisingly, it will kill you as well. If a large number of people need belief in God to get them through this life, are we really going to fault them for it? And what about the many millions on the planet who will only know poverty and suffering until the day the die. How inspiring do you imagine they find atheism?
When can we start being grown-ups? When will we learn to live and let live, to find respect for one another—regardless of philosophy—to be a core value?
It shouldn’t really be so hard, should it?
If you’re angered by intolerant religious people, are you helping your cause by being an intolerant atheist … or have you become the enemy through emulation?
Look, I have a kind of faith but I have no problem with those who don’t. In fact, I think they’re quite courageous. Because they are facing life and heartbreak and illness and death simply on their own inner strength! No “teddy bear” of faith to curl up with at night. I don’t envy them. I couldn’t do it. I have no wish to try. But I do admire them for living their convictions, truly. Not just saying that.
I would just like to see them not act like assholes. Of course, I’d also like to see religious people not act like assholes.
Can we just do that, people? Would that be so hard?
Peace and love to all (flavor to taste with the philosophy of your choice, brothers and sisters).
Last week, I heard a story on BBC News Hour that I wish I hadn’t. It was about a mass killing in a small village in Guatemala. The incident happened decades ago, though I don’t recall having heard about it before.
The newscaster—in his matter-of-fact tone, with his authoritative British accent—spoke of acts so brutal that I cried as I heard them described, moaned as if I’d been wounded. I had to choke away the visceral emotion because I was driving, but the story shook me up for some time afterward. The magnitude of the violence done to men, women, and children was/is just so incomprehensible. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to the place where they could do such unspeakable things.
I’ll give you the (abridged, edited) Wikipedia version. Warning: if you don’t know this story, prepare to be disturbed … don’t read it if you are hyper-sensitive to the suffering of others.
On the 6th of December 1982, during the de facto presidency of General Efraín Ríos Montt, around 250 people – including women, the elderly, and children – were killed in Dos Erres by commandos working as government forces as a part of the government’s “scorched earth” policy.
In the early afternoon, the Kaibiles separated out the children, and began killing them. They bashed the smallest children’s heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with sledgehammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. Next, the commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women. The massacre continued throughout 7 December. On the morning of 8 December, as the Kaibiles were preparing to leave, another 15 persons, among them children, arrived in the hamlet. With the well already full, they took the newcomers to a location half an hour away, then shot all but two of them. They kept two teenage girls for the next few days, raping them repeatedly and finally strangling them.
This is such a heart-wrenching story. It’s crushingly sad. I could hear the weeping and the screaming and the pleading of the villagers (especially the children) as they witnessed these horrors and begged not to be killed. Yet the hammer blows were delivered, the bodies mauled, the corpses tossed in the well. One after another, as if they were no more than garbage. The “how could any human being do this to other human beings” question kept gnawing at me as I tried to get those heinous images and (imagined) sounds out of my mind.
Fear, I suppose is the only answer that makes any sense (truthfully, the reality of this incident makes no rational sense, but it happened so I suppose we are forced to analyze it, try to understand it). One assumes this General Montt was a man to be feared. One assumes it was made clear to the soldiers that if they didn’t exterminate everyone they would be killed, maybe their families too. Did they have to use sledgehammers? (As a matter of degree, shooting seems like it would have been a more “humane” style of execution, though still abominable.) Perhaps even the raping was part of the “scorched earth” policy. Or did the soldiers just do that because they could? No one could stop them. No one was going to survive to give testimony.
Of course, as appalling as this incident is, it pales in comparison (in terms of magnitude) to the Rwandan genocide, or the atrocities committed by Europeans against Native Americans, or the systematic extermination of Jews during the holocaust, or the American enslavement of Africans.
How can people do such things to other people?
One of the steps that leads to genocide is the reduction of “the other” to less-than-human status. Give them a name that robs them of humanity: cockroach (against the Tutsi), savage or redskin (against Native Americans), Untermensch or “subhuman” (against Jews), n-word (against enslaved Africans). In Mein Kampf, Hitler called jews “parasites,” he said, “The Jew is a planetary bacillus.”
It’s easier to mistreat or kill a cockroach than a person.
On being “named,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”[i]
Mass killings happen for different reasons in different social and historical contexts but, at the bottom of them all—aside from simple, good-old-fashioned bigotry—is a drive to gain or preserve dominance over land and resources. In other words, it’s about power.
Are you a Hutu who doesn’t want to share political power or scarce resources and economic opportunity with your Tutsi neighbors? All you have to do is slaughter them (800,000 slain in 100 days), so you won’t have to.
Don’t want to share the land with the native population when your ships arrive at their shores? After they’re nearly wiped-out by the diseases you brought with you, you can see to it that the rest are eliminated or neutered as a threat through murder and dislocation. Then you can relegate them to a tiny spot of their own land and think of it is a kindness. Over the course of 500 years, you will have reduced their population from 10 million to 300,000.
Think that Jewish people are pretty much the reason for every bad thing happening in your country and the world? Set up an assembly line of mass murder. You can kill 11 million in a few years’ time if you really try.
Are you a European settler needing to get some back-breaking work done, but you don’t want to do it yourself? Go get yourself millions of black bodies from across the ocean. Beat them, rape and murder them into submission. Keep this going for 250 years, so you can build your so-called Democracy. The UN estimates 17 million of those black bodies died over that time period as a result of the slave trade.
We read these statistics and they boggle the mind. So many dead. So many murdered. In the end, it boils down to the seizing of power through dehumanization, subjugation, terrorizing, and murder of “the other.” Make them an object of fear, of disgust. Make them an obstacle to dominance. Pave your road to progress with their blood and bones.
With Dos Erres, Rwanda, the mass-elimination of Native Americans, the holocaust, and American slavery, we see varied combinations of violent bigotry according to skin tone: brown on brown, black on black, white on red, white on white, and white on black. This is human evil, the powerful oppressing the weak.
Examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” are far from limited to these. There are so many more. It’s hard to think about the harsh realities of all the violence in human history. Genghis Khan, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Idi Amin, the Khmer Rouge … all played their part. As did ordinary people who helped by carrying out orders or voluntarily aiding in the oppression and murder authorized by those in power.
Violence against, and oppression of, certain classifications of people is not limited to “long ago and far away.” Police brutality against African Americans is still happening. Institutionalized racism is still happening. Read the news. All across our country, and around the world, there are oppressed people groups. Nor is discrimination limited to the sphere of race. We discriminate against women, Muslims, albinos, the differently-gendered, homosexuals, those with disabilities … the list goes on and on.
How can we stop these injustices?
It seems like it ought to be so simple. The answers could be written on a message in a fortune cookie or on a postcard.
We’re all the same race: the human race. All of us have the same, intrinsic worth. All should be treated the same, given the same opportunity for education and economic success. Martin Luther King said it: judge people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Jesus said it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not hard to articulate the answers, but it is hard to implement them. It’s hard to give up privilege and power.
It comes down to the human heart. Mine. Yours.
Can we see our own prejudices? Can we see how we contribute to racism by denying it, ignoring it, minimizing it?
I’m speaking to myself. I’m speaking to my white* friends, family, neighbors, and countrymen.
I have to wake up. We have to wake up, recognize the indelible and cruel injury we have done to our brothers and sisters of a darker hue. See that we have not sought to understand or empathize with those with different sexual orientation. Admit it. Out loud. Ask forgiveness. Extend a hand. Be part of a movement that insists we are all the same, a movement that seizes the mechanisms of established power and ultimately, permanently, bends the arc of our future moral universe toward justice. A justice that truly applies to all.
These are starting places. This is the easy stuff. But if you let the reading change how you think and feel, even just a little, then you can say the journey forward has begun.
I’m still in these first steps. And I was moved to write this. This is my beginning.
*There is no white race. There are light-skinned people of many ethnic backgrounds. Whitness is a construct we have used to empower a majority based on an artificial unity relating to shared skin tone. This seems so obvious, yet it took Ta-Nehisi Coates to make me see it clearly.
[i] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (Kindle Locations 1280-1282). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
(Please don’t judge my intent before you’ve read the whole essay. And know that I welcome “enlightened guidance,” correction, and exposure to knowledge I do not currently possess. Thanks.)
Imagine you are beaten senseless and robbed by someone of your own race. The perpetrator is a junkie in need of a fix, and you’ve just cashed your two-week paycheck. The thief empties your wallet of cash, leaving you bloody and unconscious, sprawled in a dirty alleyway.
Now imagine the same beating by someone of a different race. This person does not steal from you, but spews hateful, racially-charged language during the beating.
In the first case, the crimes committed are assault and robbery. In the second case, we are looking at an assault that would likely also be categorized as a hate crime.
Once apprehended and convicted, should the bad guy in the second scenario receive a harsher sentence because he hates you? Is the assault-plus-hatred somehow a worse crime than the assault with the intent to rob? Here’s another ethics questions for you: Which crime would you rather be a victim of, the one where you’re robbed but not hated or the one where you’re hated but not robbed (the beating is the same either way)?
To the point: should we punish criminals for what they do or for what motivates them to do what they do?
You see, Johnny Skinhead can sit in his moldy, darkly-lit basement his entire lifetime, surrounded by neo-Nazi posters, slogans, and literature—his grayish little white-supremacist heart beating with savage hatred for all Jews, gays and non-white people—but if he never harms anyone, never vandalizes someone’s property, never commits a crime … we can’t arrest him. The FBI acknowledges that hate itself isn’t a crime, but should it be a reason to escalate punishment when it is associated with the commission of a prosecutable offense? Is that logical, is it reasonable?
Please, please, do not get me wrong here. I’m not pro-hate. Hate sucks. It’s ugly and it does unforgivable, despicable things to (and in) the hearts and lives of people all over the world, every single day. If I could abolish hate with a nice, shiny piece of legislation, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Hatred, however, is a slippery devil. It doesn’t care much for rules. More worrisome still, it doesn’t only belong to “those horrible people” we imagine when we think of those who commit hate crimes.
Nope. We all hate sometimes, don’t we? Even if only for a moment.
Surely, we’re tempted to hate “Jihadi John,” the masked ISIS operator who beheaded multiple non-combatants (many of his brutal executions were posted on the Internet). It wouldn’t be hard to hate 22 year-old Dylann Roof, who callously murdered nine African American churchgoers while pretending to join them in a Bible study. Wouldn’t we be justified in hating Omar Mateen for his ruthless massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida?
Let’s admit it. We have sometimes been guilty of hating the haters.
We have maybe even hated our exes, our bosses, our neighbors, cops, priests, or politicians.
Should we turn ourselves in at the local police station, confess our hatred and await sentence? Luckily, we’ve already established that hate alone is not a crime. But, wait. Isn’t it a little contradictory to say hate isn’t a crime but it is a reason to increase the severity of the penalty for the commission of a crime?
I think I get the idea of hate crime legislation. Handing out harsher penalties to those whose crimes are an “offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity” might help discourage people from committing such crimes.
Okay. Maybe. I’d like to see the stats. Regardless, as a matter of principle, are we not, in fact, punishing hate? You know, that thing the FBI told us wasn’t a crime.
Let’s consider something else. Jihadi John, Dylann Roof, and Omar Mateen didn’t emerge from the womb consumed with hatred and a desire to do harm to infidels, black people, or gay people. These criminals were infected with the hateful biases of their families and/or peers. In a way, each of them is a victim of a mindset passed on from generation to generation.
People who commit hate crimes were taught to hate. This fact in no way excuses their behavior or means they shouldn’t face justice. But it does mean, in my opinion, that the helpful (ethical, empathetic, compassionate) reaction here probably isn’t to up their sentences.
Punish them according to what they’ve done. The three I have mentioned? They are serial murderers. Punish them accordingly. Life in prison or the death penalty works in each of these cases. Punish hating vandals for vandalism, hating assaulters for assault, and so on. Prosecute them to the full extent of the law … for what they’ve done.
In addition, necessitate their enrollment in some de-programming classes. Re-educate them. Expose them to loving, intelligent, kind, merciful people who are in the ethnic or religious groups they despise. Find the root of the hate. Expose the fallacies of the philosophies they’ve been fed their whole lives. Chip away at the hate with education and love. Mostly love.
 Jihadi John is believed to have been killed in a targeted drone strike. Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. Omar Mateen was killed in a shootout with police on the day of his murderous rampage.
I walked the Earth-Wisdom Labyrinth on our church’s property today. I’ve been attending the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin for almost two years and I’ve been a member for less than a year. Because this season of my life is so full and challenging, regrettably, my attendance there is spotty. I am always glad to have attended on those Sundays I make it. Today was my first labyrinth walk.
A few details about the labyrinth (copied from church website):
It is made up of over 25 tons of stone.
It spans more than 93 feet in diameter.
It winds in for 1/3 mile and out for 1/3 mile.
It’s one of the largest labyrinths of its kind in the world.
What did I learn on my walk today?
That my mind is an obnoxiously busy place and has trouble shutting down the “constant dialogue” machine. My thoughts kept wandering to the comic. What would it be like if we had to navigate the labyrinth on unicycles? Is that Columbian Gold Minister Leslie is burning in the center (the answer is “no”)? If I suddenly hopped over a few rows, would anybody say anything? How fast could church member Todd get to the center and back on his bike (he bikes a lot)?
The labyrinth takes longer to walk than I figured.
Spiderman (or it might have been a very young churchgoer wearing a Spiderman jacket, I can’t be sure) does not recognize the implied constraints of the labyrinth, and yet he is not invulnerable to the slipperiness of the ice-coating on the path. Still, his powers seemed to protect him from harm (thankfully). Spiderman is adorable.
As we walked in silence, the sound of our collective footsteps—as they softly crunched on the pavement and less-softly crackled over the icy areas—created a comforting, constant rhythm. It reminded me I was not alone on the path. It made me wonder what the experiences of the other walkers were like. Did some of them have the same trouble quieting their thoughts? Did some recite mantras? Did some pray? It made me reflect on the fact that even as we walked the same path, The Way was different for each of us.
I encountered a few stones whose juxtaposed edges fit together nearly as neatly as puzzle pieces. That made me wonder if their placement was deliberate. It made me contemplate how things you might not think would fit together can (like atheists, Christians, and Buddhists—oh my).
It re-confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a long time now. UUCE feels like home to me.
What a cool way to start the new year!
I will walk the labyrinth again. Wonder what I might learn next time…?
My church is full of loving, liberal-minded, enlightened people whose ideals match mine to a large extent.
I’m looking at the safety pin my church gave me on Sunday … it is still attached to a card made of thick paper.
The Safety Pin Movement is a response to the perception (which appears to have some merit in light of current events) that Donald Trump’s election may embolden certain people, i.e. people who have negative, even hostile, views toward “minority” populations, to act out that hostility.
The card basically says that if I wear it I’m pledging to take action if I witness verbal or physical attacks on others. It says I should be prepared to intervene “with my physical body” if necessary. The card lists these potential victims: “women, LGBTQA, transfolks, people of color, those wearing religious garb, people speaking languages other than English, those who are visibly different—anyone.”
My first response is to think, “What a wonderful, simple thing to do to show solidarity with, and a willingness to come to the aid of, others who may be thought to be disenfranchised or under threat by certain segments of society.” I think, “I can do that.”
Wear a pin? Yes. I can do that, obviously. Place myself (potentially) in harm’s way to protect others? Well…
That’s a far harder question, isn’t it?
I mean, I totally want to wear the pin. The principle behind it is a good one, the intention is awesome and laudable.
I ask myself: Would I, in fact, risk harm to myself to stand up for this principle of unity?
The answer: I don’t know.
I ask myself: Have I ever stood up for someone before?
I can say, yes to that.
A time or two. In very small ways. In grade school and in high school I can think of two times I stood up for kids who were being picked on at school for being “different.” The kids doing the picking on were just being mocking, they weren’t trying to beat up anyone. Nor were the perpetrators particularly “dangerous” fellows. And in both cases, we were on school grounds—so there was pretty much zero real physical threat to me.
What if it had been at night in an alleyway, far from the safety of adults in authority? What if there had been pushing, or worse? Would I have acted?
Doubtful. Maybe run for help. But intervened? Sadly, probably not. I wasn’t at all a tough kid. I’d never been in a serious scrap. Wasn’t athletic. Wasn’t particularly courageous.
I’m 56 and none of that, regrettably, is any different.
So, would I stand up, today, for someone if I thought there was pretty much no possibility of violence? Yeah, I would. Would I be happy to be a friend and support to someone in one of these categories who came to me distraught? Yep, I would. Would I call 911 from across the street? You bet.
But am I going to risk real physical harm to myself? Probably not. That’s just the unfortunate truth of that.
Does that make me a coward? Maybe.
But wearing it without feeling certain I could follow through with the pledge that the pin represents? Well, that presents its own moral dilemma, doesn’t it?
I feel like I just got jabbed with a pin that I haven’t even put on.
Maybe that jab wants to teach me something. (Like, now is the time to take that self-defense class you’ve always wanted to take?)
Am I doing the right thing by not wearing the pin?
It isn’t surprising that we seek to take the “sting” out of death by making it into a cartoon lawn ornament, or wearing it as a costume, or embracing a belief system (religious or secular) that enables us to make peace with it.
Death is the great, inescapable, metaphysical killjoy waiting in the weeds for every man, woman, and child. Clearly, it is the end of one thing: our consciousness in this body on this planet in this moment.
We long to believe that it may be the beginning of another thing; because, if it isn’t, the little light that is “us” winks out forever. We are the center of our universe. We can only perceive life through our singular prism. A world that goes on without us, is a world that might as well not exist.
“Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” Said William Wallace, as portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie “Braveheart.” And this simple statement is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?
We move through life wishing away mortality because we fear we have not lived well. “Really living” is something most of us feel we have yet to accomplish. It is out there. Maybe it’s falling truly, madly, deeply in love. Or maybe it’s a great friendship we don’t yet know. We think real life is waiting in a thousand future moments. It’s writing that song or that screenplay or that novel. Getting that royalty check—that validation of our worth, our talent, our intelligence. It’s in reconciling with our dad or our son or … you know who.
I watched my elderly mom die slowly for two years. She wasn’t a perfect saint. She didn’t live a perfect life. But she absolutely had zero fear of death. This had a lot to do with her unwavering faith, but it also had a great deal to do with her being able to look back at her life and feel good about it. She knew she’d been a good wife and mom and friend. She knew she’d (mostly) lived well and loved well. This, I believe, gave her a peace about facing death.
She also was 89. She’d lived a long life. I’m confident it’s a very different thing to get a terminal diagnosis when you’re 45 or 29 or six.
At the very end of her life, my mom was still as a stone for three days, didn’t move a millimeter. I have to admit, it was a bit eerie standing over her during that time, saying, “I love you, Mom,” out loud, not knowing if she heard or understood. She looked like a corpse. The only thing that told me she was alive was the fact that, very slowly, she was still breathing. Finally, that stopped.
Seeing death in such an intimate way, up close and personal, is something you don’t forget. Not ever. But it’s my mom’s life that I reflect on, far more than her death. I am grateful she was my mom. I’m lucky I had her as a model.
I’d like to be able to say that today I’m living well and loving well. All I can say is that I’m trying. I’m as caught up in ego and worries about everyday things as the next guy or gal. Maybe more.
What, then, does it mean to “really live?”
I’m tempted to say it’s about living in the present tense, appreciating each moment, seeing the beauty in small things, doing everything you can to be at peace with all people, finding meaning and purpose in loving family and friends, following your “calling” in every aspect of life, finding your spiritual bearings, you know—seizing the bloody day and all that…
I guess that I believe those things are all part of “really living.” However, I believe them to a much larger extent than I am actually doing them. So, it feels fraudulent to say them. It feels like someone else’s list.
And yet … these ideas are the best I’ve got. So, I will say … I’m working on it.
That’s all I’ve got. How about you?
(It seems this blog keeps inspiring me to write: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/ This post is 95% a comment on left on this guy’s blog. He’s smart and insightful and I enjoy disagreeing with him in a friendly way. He takes it well.)
Nature is amazing. The stars. Animal life. Microscopic life. Forests. Oceans.
Science has done astonishing things with its ability to deconstruct nature, explain it to laymen (sometimes in terms we mostly understand).
Science is useful when its analyses lead to good medicine and a more thoughtful approach to the use of natural resources.
But science is forever USELESS when it comes to the things that we yearn to know. Most of what truly matters to people in life remains entirely outside the domain of its relevance: love, friendship, the “high” we experience in an encounter with literature or film or music or any kind of art that moves us, the transcendent sense of awe we feel before nature, the search for purpose.
Such pursuits are not the job of science, never have been. When we try to make science a God, we have made a horrifying error bound to result in things like sterilizing races we deem as inferior or using unwitting people in tests without any thought to the morality of doing so.
Yes, the USE of science can accomplish great moral good too. Feed more people. Teach us how to live sustainably. But scientific principles, when applied, are only as “good” as the souls of the people behind their application.
The same is true of religion. Its application is only as good as the hearts of its leaders and adherents. Religion can spread brotherly love or divisive rhetoric. It can elevate us or turn us into groveling idiots.
People can be beautiful and noble. Sadly, they can also be really fucking dangerous. Power in the hands of people is the most dangerous thing of all. In the guise of religion or atheistic totalitarianism or socialism or communism or democracy … humans having power over other humans is the great bugaboo of all suffering and tragedy.
And this boils down to intent. Do those in power want to minister to the people or manipulate them? Do they want to serve them or make them subservient?
These are moral questions, not scientific ones.
So, thank you science … for heart transplants and AIDS treatments and flat screen TVs.
Thank you religion … for prayer that brings connection to the sacred, for the dissemination of ideas that lead us to give to others, to love mercy and to seek justice and peace.
Just watch your hearts, atheists and theists and agnostics. This is where all future hope will come from. This is where our doom will come from.
Consider well what manner of thought and belief you deposit and nurture therein.
Depending on who you ask, tool-making humans may have been around for as long as 60,000 years.[i] Where have we arrived as a species?
The rich oppress the poor and the strong oppress the weak. We have resources enough to care for all, still one person dies every four seconds from hunger or hunger-related causes.
You would think we would have figured it out by now, this thing about human kindness, about loving your neighbor, but it seems we haven’t. Not by a long shot.
Let’s examine just a little of the more-modern wreckage, shall we?
According to the Iraqi Body Count project, as many as 175,000 non-combatant Iraqis were killed in George W. Bush’s Iraq War.[ii] What a ghastly cost. And for what?
During the Rwandan Genocide 800,000 men, women, and children were butchered—often hacked to death with machetes or beaten with farm implements—all this taking place in 100 days, while Bill Clinton (and the leaders of every other nation) failed to take any meaningful action.[iii] Samantha Powers called it “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century.” What better proof of, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing?” (The “goodness” of any given political leader is a matter of some dispute.)
Fact is, we, as “civilized” homo sapiens, seem to consistently completely suck when it comes to attending to the things that really matter in life. And we seem to excel at finding new ways to exhibit callous inhumanity.
Nor can we look exclusively at governments, corporations, and greedy millionaires to be our evil-doing scapegoats. We have to look at ordinary people too, the ones living next door, the ones living with us—yes, we even have to look at the human being in the mirror. Because regular folks are abusing children; husbands are beating and cheating on wives; we are gorging on food and purchasing luxury products while others starve. We are lying, stealing, coveting, failing to love and forgive, turning a blind eye to a thousand injustices … and on and on. We are the problem. I am the problem.
We want to believe we’re evolving upward as a species … but the statistics are telling another story.
No political party or race or class or creed has a monopoly on deceit or cruelty. Evil is, fundamentally, a human problem not a political problem; though its exercise on a grand scale seems to relate closely to the “power corrupts” notion. Power can poison the formerly humble when the glitter of its promises begins to affect their vision.
Republicans brought us Watergate and Kent State. Democrats got us entangled in Viet Nam. A Republican administration brought us the Iraq War and “enhanced interrogation.” A Democratic administration dropped two weapons of mass destruction on non-combatants with high-end estimations of nearly 200,000 killed (includes long-term aftermath deaths) in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (A coherent argument can be made that these bombings ultimately saved lives because they ended World War II, but it’s a slippery moral slope, isn’t it? It’s still the USA using WMDs to murder tens of thousands of civilians.)
So don’t try to tell me it’s those d***ed Republicans or Democrats that are ruining life on planet Earth. It’s people. It’s us.
Of course, individuals and governments are doing good things every day too: aiding the suffering, caring for the destitute and disempowered. People perform simple acts of kindness to help total strangers all the time: they help little old ladies cross the street, push stalled cars off highways, buy lunch for the homeless, etcetera. We are, indeed, capable of “rising to the occasion.” These acts are being done by Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, the religious and the non-religious.
If we all woke up tomorrow and every living human truly “loved his neighbor as him- or-herself” (not as a religious principle, but a philosophical one) we could do away with the military and police. We could close prisons. We’d be living in John Lennon’s utopia. Unfortunately, that’s an idea we’re still “imagining” and not living out. As Metallica said, “Sad but true.” Hey, Metallica might not have been the first ones to say that … but they said it the coolest.
Yes, you and I have to decide what to believe in, what ideas to support and oppose, and this will mean picking a political representative whose espoused values line up most closely with our own (if we haven’t yet become so cynical that we’ve given up entirely on the whole dog and pony show called politics). So go ahead and pick your guys and gals. Wear a pin if it makes you feel good.
But please don’t pretend that everything’s going to be swell “once the nice people get in office.”
‘Cause that hasn’t worked so far. Maybe you noticed. Expecting it to happen this election cycle might be a tad naïve.
So, what are we to do? Give up?
Your job is to be a light where you are. Love your spouse, your kids, your neighbors. Be kind to those with whom you disagree. Disarm them with unconditional love. These are your most critical earthly tasks (and mine). This life-thing is not about winning an argument—that’s for courtrooms (and, c’mon, how just are the decisions coming out of courtrooms these days, really, whichever way they may lean?).
Could there be some human movement that truly makes the world a better place?
Well, it’s already happened, hasn’t it? Abolition. The Civil Rights Movement. Women’s rights. Gay rights. War protests. Occupy protests. These ideas began somewhere and they changed things. Not that those problems are resolutely solved. They aren’t. But there’s been progress. So, there’s hope. Go ahead and join a movement you believe in. Write that check. March that march.
Just keep checking your heart. When you feel yourself harboring ugly feelings toward those whose ideas you oppose, realize that, in all likelihood, you’d be them if you’d been raised by their parents, grown up in their neighborhood, been born in their generation. Try not to just tolerate them. Challenge yourself to love them. That will free you from anything that might morph into hate. Your best chance of changing someone else’s heart is to begin by changing yours.[iv]
Hug people you love. Lift them up with words of encouragement and acts of service.
And don’t forget to lighten up. Life’s too short to be indignant all the time. Have a nice cold beer, or Diet Cherry 7UP, or whatever your beverage pleasure is. Have an M&M (I recommend Peanut). Smile, laugh. Help others to smile and laugh. As often as possible.