From Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer “If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we – you and I – became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.”
From “A Model of Christian charity” by John Winthrop “We must be knit together in this work as one . . . . We must entertain each other in . . . affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”
I’ve been struggling to name what is eating at me these days, what is gnawing in the pit of my stomach, disturbing my sleep, lying beneath my perplexity and confusion, beneath occasional fits of anger and bouts of depression that leave me feeling frustrated, isolated, alone. It’s not just the political turmoil we’re living with. It feels like something deeper, something I am missing, even mourning, yet without being able to put a finger on it. It has been painful enough that, to be honest, I usually pushed it out of my consciousness. But in those moments when I felt my spirits lift and open a bit, I cast about, wondering, and in time I settled on what seems to be the absence of one small word in our lives these days: We. We, the first person plural pronoun: simple word, right? But such a powerful one, too. In a world where first person singular I goes about distinguishing, separating, first person plural We wraps us up in a blanket, tosses a lasso around us, bunches us together heedlessly, like it or not.
But these days when it seems so many are working overtime to claim distinction, privilege, prerogative, superiority of some, inferiority of others, the voice of We is being pushed aside, lost in the cacophony. Or, what is worse, it is being conscripted in the fight as a tool to make invidious comparisons among peoples, with certain We’s held to be superior in all kinds of imagined ways to other ones. Such madness! And here, I believe, is why: It is a fundamental truth that every I, no matter what its qualities, has a basic integrity to it. It is itself and that is enough. Similarly, every We is grounded in an ultimate We that encompasses its kind and all kinds. I and We are, in a sense, two peas in a pod, two ways of looking at the world, neither superior to the other – I am myself and I am part of something larger to which I am intimately connected. It is this perspective that I feel is increasingly absent from our lives together and that we are badly in need of recovering. Earlier you heard the words of John Winthrop, now nearly five centuries old, that helped set the stage for how the early Puritan colonies would gather in those first New England colonies. There are many ways in which Winthrop’s vision was flawed: he laid out a heavily patriarchal government by wealthy landowners dominating subservient poor. And yet, underlying it all is a powerful We. All members, of both high and low station, must resolve to be, in his words, “knit together . . . in affection.” They must be willing to share – “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities” – and treat each other with “meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.” And, he says: “We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together” always having before us a vision of being “members of the same body.” It is language that is both archaic and breathtakingly relevant. When was the last time you were present with someone outside your family who you considered you might “delight in,” whose conditions you made your own, people with whom you rejoiced, mourned, labored and suffered? Winthrop is not arguing for some exclusive community sheltered from the world. Instead, he proposes, a model for the world, a “city on a hill” that accepts the judgment of all people, of the most high on how faithfully it lives its mission. Now, we know from history that the reality of Puritan life rarely reflected such ideals, but their presence and prominence in the community served as a reminder of its larger goals, of the mission to which it saw itself called. These ideals also underlay an ethos that pervaded our emerging nation, even with its disparities and inequalities. Yes, the founders of our nation were elitist in many ways, and yet the frame they offered for the nation was one whose authority was grounded in, as they named it, “We, the people”: a broad and glorious We that recognized no distinctions. Even though, yes, many distinctions were made, are made in how our nation allocates its resources, the principle that We the people – that means everyone – have a claim on them echoes in the halls of government even in the turmoil of today. Yet, as Parker Palmer reminds us, those words have come to ring hollow, like a tired slogan, leaving us in danger of coming to a place where, he says, “we – you and I – become so fearful of one another, of our differences and of the future that we unravel the civic community on which democracy depends.” What I find most helpful about Palmer’s perspective is how he diagnoses the cause of the disruption that we’ve experienced and how we might go about repairing it. Where he suggests we begin this inquiry is in the heart, and it’s important to distinguish how he uses that word. Let go, he says, of the idea of the heart being the seat of our feelings, and instead imagine it as the place where, in his words, “we learn to think the world together” and find the courage to act. Think of it as the center of our integrity, where we pull together our images of self and the world and make some sense of who we are and how we fit. Sad to say, given the state of the world, it’s a place that experiences some significant disruptions that come in the form of such things as loss, failure, defeat, betrayal and death. When those things happen, we experience something that we call “heartbreak.” This is something worth attending to, Parker Palmer says, because, in his words, “nothing that happens in the human heart has more power, for better or worse, than heartbreak.” We can see how this could be. If we take what we call our heart to be the center of our integrity, then any injury done to it affects us deeply. Something in us is shattered. There’s no avoiding it: It happens to all of us. What is left is for us to decide how to respond. Some come to dwell on an injury as something that disfigures them irreparably – “Look at this wound! Poor me!” This pity-seeking, though, takes us only so far. We can get stuck in it and so become unavailable to ourselves and others or unable to appreciate their suffering as on a par with our own, breeding in us anger, resentment and isolation. Others seek to shrug off the impact of any injury. And, yeah, I’m pretty much talking about men here. We’re socialized to take the blows and keep on fighting. “Didn’t touch me,” right? Now, it’s true that in the midst of a fight we do need to keep our wits about us and not get distracted by the blows we receive. But really, guys, there is little in our lives that needs to be elevated to a fight. And what’s worse, the fight culture, militarism, does terrible damage over time to our lives, our relationships, our community.
Another possibility, Parker Palmer says, is that we consider that when we experience loss of some kind we find that our hearts are not broken apart but broken open. That can be hard to hear. It almost seems to diminish what we feel – “Can’t you see I’m in pain? How can this be anything but a total shattering!” OK, I get that. But look at you. You’re still here, the same loveable, awesome you, and you’ve learned a few things. You’ve learned perhaps that you imbued a relationship with more faith than it deserved, or the sad truth that everyone we love we will lose eventually. That’s hard stuff, and the pain you feel is real, and important. I’m so sorry. And once we sit with that for a while, breathe a bit, we do notice that despite our pain one day still follows another. We are able to go on, not forgetting our injury, but finding a context for it, adjusting our lives to accommodate it. That experience, Parker says, teaches us the practice of learning “to hold our own and the world’s pain.” We come to recognize suffering in others, which in turn opens us to greater compassion and deeper empathy. This is, in essence, the central We of our lives. Suffering, as the Buddhists say, is universal, but it is also the source of some of our deepest bonds. When we are lonely, weary, and fed up, We offers the counsel we need: none of us is bullet-proof, but all of us are fundamentally redeemable and whole. It’s the message that I know I need to hear these days as I struggle with my own broken-heartedness, my feelings that all the ways that it seemed that we in this country were bridging divides, letting go of ancient hatreds, affirming our intimate link to the Earth are crumbling around me. And I’ve had enough experience of heartbreak to recognize it in the world around me, including those with whom I most strongly disagree. I’m compelled now to see that if I am going to make peace with this I need to find a way to extend my compassion to them, to look for the kind of We that might make room for both of us. This is not Pollyannaish happy talk. I don’t intend to compromise my principles. But I accept that, as Parker Palmer puts it, our heart demands that we find a way to live appreciating what he calls “the tragic gap” between the world as it is and the world as we wish it to be. And that requires that we find ways to act creatively in that gap, that we each enter with a clear sense of and appreciation for our own voice and agency while working to build community that can support us and help us enact the change we seek. Because I do believe in the power, the ultimate truth, the bald fact of We. Every way that we seek to separate people into sheep and goats or raise ourselves above others only diminishes us all. Because we are each other’s back scratchers, knit together as one. Perhaps it’s nostalgia in this conflictual time that led me recently to click on a file I’d stored away on my computer a couple of months ago: Barak Obama’s farewell address. We can debate the pluses and minuses of his eight-year presidency, but perhaps the greatest gift that he has given us in his public life is the affirmation of We. In the speech, he told of how he learned from his earliest days as a community organizer that, in his words, “change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” We may believe that the rights proclaimed by the founders are self-evident, he said, but they “have never been self-executing. We the People, through the instrument of our democracy, (are charged to) form a more perfect union,” given “the imperative to strive together to achieve a common, a greater good.” There is much in our laws that much change if we are to live into that charge, he said, “but laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change.” Each of us has her or his blind spots, those sensitive wounds where our hearts don’t feel quite ready to go. Still, he said, “we have to pay attention and listen.” I hear in those words the echo of John Winthrop – whatever you may think of your neighbor, I charge you to delight in her and in him. See them as the precious beings they are, and you are as well. Know that we can only succeed in this perilous adventure of life together, no less fraught today than it was in 1630, if we will make other’s conditions our own, if we will share our hearts – mourn together, rejoice together, suffer together as members of the same body. Obama closed his speech with his signature line dating from his earliest campaign speeches, the one he borrowed from the United Farm Workers, “Si, se puede”: “Yes, we can.” But I read it a little differently than I had in the past. This time I focused on the second word. Yes, We can. As endangered as it feels, We holds our strength and our hope as a people, as a species. It remains an undeniable fact that as crazy as we make each other, with all the wrong of which, sadly, we are capable, the first person plural binds us up, one with the other. Our challenge is to live into that truth.
By now I hope it’s registered in your brain that we have a literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get “free money!” as Rev. Lisa put it on Sunday morning.
UUCA is a pilot congregation for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s new Wake Now Our Vision Legacy Challenge, which will award up to $5 million in challenge grants to congregations who receive planned gift commitments in 2017 or 2018. Matching money will be given to planned gift commitments to UUCA and/or other major UU institutions, including the UUA, the UU Service Committee, Meadville Lombard Theological School, Starr King School for the Ministry or the UU Ministers Association.
Legacy gift intentions made between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2018 will qualify for a 10% match, up to $10,000. And the very best part is that the matching money will be distributed to congregations in 2019 as unrestricted money! Woo hoo – it doesn’t get any better than THAT, does it? We get money TWICE!!! The matching money will come to us in 2019 and we will get your planned gift–uh, upon your demise (how to put that more graciously?–hmmmm).
How Can You Learn More? A special UUA informational event on the Challenge is scheduled for Saturday, April 8. The session begins with lunch at 12:00 followed by a 1:00-3:00 presentation. Rev. Laura Randall, UUA’s Legacy Challenge Director, will be here at UUCA for a regional workshop. We’d like to have you join us for an opportunity to learn about the Wake Now Our Vision Legacy Challenge and ideas on how to give to UUCA and reduce your taxes. Many more details will be made available on April 8 so your attendance is encouraged. And did you see that? It’s a free lunch, too! (Gotta love this program!)
If you can’t join us on April 8, then members of the Legacy Circle Committee plan to host information sessions after the 9:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. services, too. We really, really want you to have all the information you need!
We hope you are as excited as we are about this opportunity and help us take full advantage of the $5 million challenge grant. Feel free to contact members of the UUCA Legacy Circle Committee with questions, and register as soon as you can for the April 8th presentation.
ON KINDNESS by Naomi Shihab Nye https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/kindness
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.[a] “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Not many poems have a story behind them, but the one by Naomi Shihab Nye that you just heard does. In an interview with the radio host Krista Tippet, Nye recalled that the poem came to her years ago as the result of an incident in Colombia while she and her husband were on their honeymoon.
The two had planned to take three months to travel across South America, when at the end of their first week they were on a bus at the beginning of their journey and they were robbed of everything they had. Someone else who was on the bus with them, but who they didn’t know, was killed. He’s the Indian in the poem.
It was, as you can imagine, a terribly traumatizing event. The two, being young adults just starting to make their way in the world in a foreign country where they knew no one, were stunned, not knowing where to turn. As Nye puts it, “we didn’t have passports. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have anything.” What should they do? Where should they go? Who should they talk to?
As Nye tells it they were just standing along the side of a road, when a man approached them. “I guess he could see the disarray in our faces,” she said. “He was simply kind and just looked at us. ‘What happened to you?’” he asked in Spanish. And they recounted their story.
“He looked so sad,” Nye recalled. And after listening for a while he said, “I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened.” And then he went on his way.
After a few minutes, Nye and her husband came up with a plan: he would hitch-hike back to a larger city and see if they could get their traveler’s checks reinstated – remember travel’s checks? Nye would stay somewhere and await his return.
So, off her husband headed, and Nye, feeling in a bit of a panic, sat down in a plaza, where, as she tells it, this poem came to her: “before you know what kindness really is you must lose things . . . .”
Does this resonate with you? Who of us hasn’t had the experience where the simple gesture of a stranger made a difference in our lives?
It’s a story that echoes much of what we hear in the Good Samaritan story from the Gospel of Luke that James read earlier. It’s interesting, though, to reflect on some of the ways that Nye’s experience differs from the Lukan story.
For example, we have in Nye’s story no parade of functionaries of high station passing by, though it’s a good bet that the man who stopped and talked with the couple was not the first who passed them. His stopping was certainly notable to Nye and her husband.
But also in the Good Samaritan story Jesus takes note of all these wonderful things that the passing Samaritan did for the poor beleaguered robbery victim that he found by the side of the road: he bandaged the man’s wounds and poured oil and wine on them. Then he placed the man on his own animal, likely a donkey or some such, brought him to an inn and cared for him for a day, and then the next day went to the innkeeper and gave him money and said, “Take care of him, and when I come back I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Wow! What a guy, right? I mean, talk about hospitality. I don’t think there’s a soul who doesn’t come away from that story with a sense of deep admiration. And . . . perhaps also a twinge of guilt. Because, after all, most of us have had occasion to do another person a good turn in one way or another, but there are few whose “neighborliness,” which is what this parable addresses, has been quite so bounteous. Yeah, we did well, but did we do all we could have? Do we measure up to this kind of standard?
I was surprised to discover a narrative something like that in myself in hearing Nye’s story of her encounter with the helpful man. I even printed out a transcript of her interview with Krista Tippet to double-check: OK, he said how sorry he was, uh-huh, and then he did what? Surely he must have done something more. Maybe he led them to a café and bought them a drink? Or directed them to a government office to get a new passport? Or . . .
No. After looking sad and saying how sorry he was, Nye says, he went on. That’s it. He left the picture. Huh!
And here’s the other interesting side of that interchange: at that moment, the man’s simple acknowledgement, Nye said, was all that she and her husband needed. And she remembered it as a moment of kindness.
She didn’t need him turning himself inside out to make everything right for them, because nobody could do that. It was going to take some work to set things right. But meanwhile to know that someone recognized their humanity and offered his sympathies made all the difference.
In hearing the Good Samaritan story it’s easy to get caught up in all that the Samaritan did to help the man – to be honest, I suspect that Jesus laid it on a bit thick so no one would mistake his message. But the truly revolutionary part was this brief passage: “and when he saw the man he was moved with pity.” Confronted with a stranger, a foreigner no less, the man didn’t avert his eyes or shrink from him. He listened to his heart and had pity.
In the rest of that interview with Krista Tippet, I learned something interesting about Nye. The daughter of a Palestinian man and an American woman of German heritage, she had grown up in, of all places, Ferguson, Missouri. In the time of her childhood, Nye said, Ferguson was a sleepy little bedroom community for St. Louis, a place of big trees where kids rode their bikes all over the place and everyone felt safe. To think of it now as a place, in her words, “representing injustice” in the imaginations of many Americans is shocking, she said.
It was also a place, she wrote elsewhere, where her father, an Arab, ran for the school board and won, and she got a summer job picking berries alongside black boys. But with the school desegregation battles of the late 1960s blacks were marginalized and separated from whites.
And in time tensions in that community led to an incident in August 2014 when a white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot to death an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown Jr., accused of stealing a box of cigars from a convenience store. So much of what surrounded that incident was terrible and tragic, but perhaps nothing speaks more powerfully to how Michael Brown’s humanity was dismissed than the fact that his dead body lay on the pavement of Canfield Drive for four hours before it was retrieved.
It sounds almost like a mockery to call such an act “unkind.” But perhaps less so if we understand kindness in the context of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem and the parable of the Good Samaritan as the first and most basic act of recognizing another’s humanity.
Kindness is not fixing everything and making it right. It is looking directly into the eyes of another and seeing their worth and value as a sibling on this earth, seeing another as akin to oneself. It is, heaven help us, looking at the terribly brutalized body of another and showing respect, at the very least saying, “I am very sorry. I am very, very sorry that this happened.”
Back over this past Valentine’s Day, Debbie and I took a trip to Atlanta. We used it as a time to do the tourist kind of things, trips to museums, historical sites and the like. Among the sights we saw in the complex of museums celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was the church where King’s father and then King himself were pastors. The building has long since been converted to a museum and the congregation now worships at an immense new building across the street.
In the sanctuary, the museum was playing a recording of King speaking. On entering I sat and listened for a while, wondering if I’d recognize which sermon it was. Before long I did. It was the last sermon that Martin Luther King ever gave, the day before he was shot to death.
It was a tempestuous night in Memphis, kind of like the crazy weather we’ve had here this week, when King delivered the sermon in April 1968. He had come to march in support of striking sanitation workers, but had planned to have his lieutenants handle the rally planned that night at a local church. Word came, though, that the crowd begged form him to come. So, he went and, off the top of his head, preached on one of the most powerful sermons of his life, based some of his favorite personal stories and Bible verses – among them that of the Good Samaritan.
In the sermon, King recalled a trip that he and his wife, Coretta, took to Israel years before, when they rented a car that took them on the road from Jerico to Jerusalem, where the Good Samaritan story is set.
It is, he said, “a wild meandering road . . . really conducive to ambushing.” So, he could understand how the priest and the Levite in the story could have been wary of stopping to help the man beset by thieves. As they considered, King said, the first question in their minds likely was “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But, he said, “then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” It certainly could put him at risk, he said, but it was part of what he called “a dangerous unselfishness” to which the Samaritan was called.
King offered this parable as reason to stand with the striking sanitation workers, but later he expanded his theme in the kinds of words he’d never used before, saying he was unsure how long he would live, that he’d been told of threats from, in his words, “some of our sick white brothers.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, “but it really doesn’t matter now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
How do you know if you’ve been to the mountaintop? I don’t believe that King is referring to some kind of moment of ecstasy here. Instead, I think he meant an experience of affinity with another so deep, so thorough that it washes over you and makes you forget your own mean ego.
It is a moment something like what Naomi Shihbab Nye describes when she says you must look upon others who are suffering and know it could be you.
And so, she says, “before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you can see the size of the cloth. Then, it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”
I often think that what keeps us from the acts of kindness to which our hearts call us is not just the risk they can entail but also a fear of embracing the sorrow that is woven with them. In extending kindness to another we make ourselves vulnerable to sorrow and loss and disappointment.
It can be scary, it’s true, but that’s part of what communities like ours exist to do, to encourage each other to take a risk, to experience “a dangerous unselfishness,” and see that, as King put it, our fears, our misgivings really don’t matter because we’ve had a glimpse of living where our hearts are undivided from our deeds, and it is good. It may not be life eternal, as the Biblical parable promises, but it surely is the experience of life abundant: life fulfilling and undivided, centered in courage and compassion.
Still, though, we demur: that’s fine for others, but not me. I’m not up to that. And yet, reflect: if taking a few minutes to walk down the street and write a few words in chalk on a sidewalk can do this, what more are we capable of achieving? How else might we reach out so as to give others hope and assurance?
Behind that fearful demeanor that we adopt is a rich abundance of wisdom, hope, compassion that are ready to be mined. And kindness, I want to argue, is the shovel or maybe sometimes the jack hammer that we need to open it up. And it is worth it. It is worth taking the chance of encountering sorrow and pain because with even the smallest gesture of compassion sometimes we can make a difference in the lives of others and our own, that we may be filled with loving kindness and be peaceful, whole, and at ease.
“Doublethink lies at the very heart of (the state), since the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.”
If Love Be There by Robert T. Weston
Setting aside all that divides me from others;
Remembering that the world is beautiful
To him or her who is willing that it be so
And that into the open, eager heart
The beauty enters in
If love be there;
I will make a part of the song of life
There may be grief, but if there be love it will be overcome.
There may be pain, but it can be borne with dignity and courage;
There may be difficulty, but it can be turned to strength.
Remembering that the word is beautiful
If I will let it be so for others who I meet,
I will make a part of the song of life.
All this talk these days of “alternative facts” carries me back to a previous life when for 25 years I worked for daily newspapers. The press, I can assure you, was no more popular among political leaders than it is now. The difference was that back then when you caught some politician in a lie it generally elicited some measure of shame along with the predictable ranting and raving. And I must admit that it’s true: for many reporters there was nothing sweeter than a front-page story of yours catching a politician literally or metaphorically with his or her pants down.
But of course the standard went both ways. There was no wiggle room on even the smallest details of your writing. Every reporter can recount interchanges with tyrannical editors who insisted on checking and double-checking every detail of a story. The poet David Tucker, a former city editor in Newark, New Jersey, sums it up in his poem, “City Editor Looking for News,” which begins:
“What did Nick the Crumb say before he died?
What noise did his fist make when he begged Little Pete not to whack him with a power saw?
Did it go thub like a biscuit against a wall or sklack like a seashell cracking open?
Did he say his mother’s name?
Has anybody even talked to his friggin’ mother?
Is she broke or sick or abandoned?
Is she dying of a broken heart?
Do I have to think of these things all by myself?”
You get the picture. The gold standard in the business was the City News Bureau of Chicago, a cooperative news service that served all of Chicago’s dailies. Its motto was: “Your mother says she loves you? Check it out!”
But the City News Bureau closed in 1999 and with it went much reporting at that kind of granular level of detail. There remain a few newspapers with high standards. (Full disclosure, I am a daily subscriber to the New York time, and I consider it one of them.) But on balance many newspapers, with ad revenue tanking, couldn’t staff it, and much that has replaced it and them is an echo chamber of blogs, partisan politicking, and entertainment chatter.
Our new president is one of the most successful purveyors of that medium. From early in his career as a real estate developer he was charmed by the celebrity culture and insinuated himself into it.
In that culture, he learned that facts can be convenient things to use when they are to your advantage, but also convenient to ignore, deny, or repackage when they don’t. And, as far as he was concerned, exaggeration hurt nobody: biggest, best, greatest, whatever. Who was going to disprove you, or for that matter take the time to? Meanwhile, the dollars rolled in. Tony Schwartz, the co-author of his best-seller, “The Art of the Deal,” recalls Donald Trump coining the notion of “truthful hyperbole,” to describe his approach, calling it “an innocent form of exaggeration” and “a very effective form of promotion.”
So, is it any wonder that Susan Glasser, a former editor of “Politico,” reports that when she assigned a team of reporters to listen to every single word from Trump’s mouth during last year’s primary season, in her words, “he offered a lie, half-truth, or outright exaggeration approximately once every five minutes for an entire week.” By the general election season, she said, “Trump had progressed to fibs of various magnitudes just about once every three minutes.”
Given all that, it’s hardly surprising that days after the November election, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that it had chosen “post-truth” as the word of the year, offering as a definition: “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Of course, lying in politics is nothing new, and rightful accusations can be made on both sides of the aisle. Yet, from my vantage we are experiencing something new in Mr. Trump’s practices. The fact is that there is something qualitatively different between bloviating about the Miss Universe contest and misrepresenting the influence of Russia hackers on the US election. Once elevated to the level of national policy lying becomes something more like propaganda.
It can seem extreme to compare the Trump administration’s practices to those of dictators across history and around the world, even to those that George Orwell describes in “1984.” And yet, the echoes here are eerie.
Orwell invented the notion of what he called “doublethink” to describe the practice of knowingly deceiving others while maintaining a pose of “complete honesty,” denying reality while also secretly taking account of the reality that you’re denying. His protagonist, Winston Smith, worked in the Ministry of Truth (the state’s propaganda office), where he recomposed the record of history, creating, you might say, “alternative facts,” to fit the regime’s ideology.
OK, I really don’t want to carry this too far, but it is at least worth taking a moment for us to affirm that real facts matter. You know: truth, veracity, the real deal, the whole story. And that lying, falsifying, misrepresenting, dissembling is bad for us, a poison, really, that eats away at everything we care about.
There’s a reason why we as a religious people covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It’s because we believe that our spiritual wholeness depends on confronting the real facts of our lives and the world we live in. We believe we can live free, awakened, and aware; we can be loving, compassionate, and kind; we can live into who we are and use our gifts to help save the world only in the presence of the truth. And from that truth we derive meaning.
This brings me back to the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of “post truth.” The term describes circumstances where appeals are made, not to facts, but “to emotion and personal belief.” For an ex-journalist like me, the most puzzling thing about Trump’s dissembling is that it doesn’t seem to matter to many people. And that makes me scratch my head: how could that be? How can it not matter that the president isn’t telling the truth?
What appears to be going on becomes clearer on listening to Trump’s speeches, which are offered not as arguments based on facts but as sales pitches centered on emotion. What he likes is “great, the best” and what he doesn’t is “bad, nasty, the worst.” He offers no evidence for those judgments because there is no apparent thought behind them. They are merely impulsive eruptions. All that he offers in support of them is his brand: “I’ve made lots of money, I own golf resorts, office towers and gaudy hotels – Believe me!”
It’s not the first time anyone has made such a pitch, but at a time when our culture measures success by the accumulation of goods it has powerful effect. “This guy’s hauling it in. He must know what he’s talking about.” Right? There’s no question he’s an accomplished salesman, but in just the first month or so of his administration the growing list of his blunders and misadventures make clear how troublesome that judgment can be. Governing, it turns out, is a radically different business than real estate development.
So, here we are at this precarious time. How are we to respond in a way that is centered in integrity, in a way of living that is grounded in what is true and what is right? Several years ago I heard a presentation at a minister’s conference that stuck with me. The speaker argued that over the last century different memes embodying cultural ideas or practices have tended to prevail at the time.
For example, she said, in the 1960s the predominant mode of thinking centered on the notion of rights – who had them and how they would be protected. It was a powerful driver of all kinds of things, she said, but in time its importance faded to be replaced in the 1980s by a different idea, the rising notion that people shouldn’t look to others to make their way in the world, that we are responsible for our own destiny. She identified this with an acronym she gave as “Y-O-Y-O, YOYO” or “you’re on your own.”
She argued, however, that in this new century that old notion is beginning to fade and a new meme is rising that acknowledges more directly our interdependence on each other. It’s the recognition that while we are responsible for our individual lives, we can’t get by on our own. She described this with the acronym, “W-I-T-T, WITT” or “we’re in this together.”
I think that Donald Trump notwithstanding, WITT is the acronym of our age. It embodies the recognition that we are fundamentally bound to each other and the Earth across races, ethnicities, gender identities, economic status and nationality. Every person matters.
Our work, then, involves building ties to know each other better and exploring how to empower all people to live with purpose and meaning. It means widening our circles of concern to embrace all people, including those who today are marginalized. It is a powerful center of meaning grounded in the truth of the unity of humankind.
But it is challenging, too. It requires adapting ourselves to difference, stepping outside the echo chambers of the narrow silos of our lives. We do this through the choices we make in how we conduct our lives, about how we spend our time, who we associate with. Giving ourselves to this work is not easy, let’s be honest.
Easy is living our quiet lives in our quiet circles. Hard is putting ourselves in places we’ve never been in the company of people different from us. It isn’t comfortable, and yet it puts us in touch with something so remarkable and compelling that it can astonish us when we first experience it. Annie Dillard describes it as the substrate that underlies everything else in our lives: “our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here.” The simplest word for it is love: an elemental truth so basic, so vital that it eludes our conscious minds, as Rumi puts it, like the water that fish swim in.
But it’s not enough just to name it: it must be summoned, it must be activated if we would know it. As the writer Scott Peck put it years ago, “love is as love does.” It is an act of will. “We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Choosing to love is speaking out when we see others demeaned, reaching out to neighbors when they are threatened, listening when another is in pain.
I’m afraid it’s a long slog ahead for us, folks. What’s going on in Washington stands to disrupt all of our lives for years to come and in many ways we can’t yet fathom.
That means we must learn to pace ourselves: attend to the good that’s in our power to affect and pay attention. Read your newspapers, stay informed, and look for ways to widen your circles.
And let us say a blessing for the complexities of this world, all the imponderables that unhorse our prejudices and preconceptions, that force us to shake our heads and look again. Our human brains evolved to locate patterns and construct scenarios that distill complicated circumstances to a few simple elements. It’s a great boon to us, but it also gets us into trouble time and again when the messy world with all of its inconvenient truths trips us up.
And so, thankfully, it forces us amid all our hubris to admit to a little humility. Ah, humility, that not-so-gentle reminder that to be human is to be fallible, requiring us to be open to correction, to learn tolerance, forbearance, and so be open to grace.
We are reminded, as Robert Weston put it, that there will be grief and pain in our lives and those of our fellows, but they can be endured and even overcome if love be there. And in bringing that love, we, too, might make a part of the song of life.