2011-05-30

Appendix: On Being Human (1998)

Appendix to "On Being Animal". This is the piece I mentioned in "On Being Animal." I presented this at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee on 1998 August 16.

ON BEING HUMAN

Writers of the past have had no shortage of things to say on the subject of being human. The first passage that came to my mind was the one from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!
Aristotle’s politics emphasized our social nature, law and justice being the way the we regulate our social co-existence. The human being, he said,
when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.
Others have suggested less lofty ways of picking out what constitutes being human. Featherless biped is one. It wasn’t featherlessness but relative hairlessness that impressed Desmond Morris:
There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens.
18th century French dramatist Beaumarchais claimed:
Drinking when we are not thirsty and making love all year round, madam; that is all there is to distinguish us from other animals.
Along similar lines, a more recent French writer, Albert Camus, declared,
A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.
In Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, a human is
An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.
In Genesis, we are told that humans were created in God’s image. Numerous subsequent sources have suggested that God was created in our image. William Blake indicated that we are the creatures in whose image a number of values were created:
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face, And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress.
For Ralph Waldo Emerson -- a Unitarian minister -- a human
is physically as well as metaphysically a thing of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors, and a misfit from the start.
Mark Twain found our species to be
a museum of diseases, a home of impurities; he comes today and is gone tomorrow; he begins as dirt and departs as stench.
U.S. writer Christopher Morley more cheerfully and poetically characterizes us as
a whispering in the steam pipes on a cold night; dust sifted through a locked window; one or the other half of an unsolved equation; a pun made by God; an ingenious assembly of portable plumbing.
Our connection with the rest of nature has been noted, though the implication has sometimes been negative. Wrote Prussian King, Frederick the Great:
Every man has a wild beast within him.
William Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan, said that humanity
is nature’s sole mistake,
But for English writer Francis Quarles, Humanity
is Heaven's masterpiece.
Nature’s mistake, but heaven’s masterpiece. No wonder, then, that French writer Marquis de Luc de Clapiers Vauvenargues said,
We should expect the best and the worst from mankind, as from the weather.
British clergyman W.R. Inge noted our connection to nature, but was more optimistic than Gilbert. The human being, he said,
is a poor creature; but he is halfway between an ape and a god and he is travelling in the right direction.
But Inge’s implied right direction is away from nature. H.L. Mencken is among those who saw us as a sort of machine. The human being
is a beautiful machine that works very badly. He is like a watch of which the most that can be said is that its cosmetic effect is good.
Somerset Maugham voiced a similar sentiment.
I'll give you my opinion of the human race . . . Their heart's in the right place, but their head is a thoroughly inefficient organ.
Indeed, British biologist Julian Huxley worried that,
The human race will be the cancer of the planet.
But we can avoid killing off our own habitat, it will be interesting to see what we can make of ourselves. As Tennessee Williams observed,
We're all of us guinea pigs in the laboratory of God. Humanity is just a work in progress.
What is it that makes us human? As with all animals, we have basic needs. That is, our DNA blueprint wires us up to seek food -- and oxygen if it happens to be briefly missing -- to seek to reproduce, and to avoid pain, because pain signals damage to our bodies which would make it more difficult to find food and a mate. These basic needs are our primary reinforcers. Food, sex, pain are inherently meaningful just because of the way we are genetically constructed.

From there, we learn. We come to develop meanings for lots of other things too. That is, we are conditioned by our environment, our stimuli. The conditioning is of two types. In classical conditioning, our nervous systems associate one stimulus with another one. So Pavlov’s dog came to associate the ringing of the bell with the arrival of food. A stimulus that was inherently meaningful – the food – was paired with a stimulus which, because of the pairing, acquired a meaning. The other kind of conditioning is operant conditioning. Here, a behavior is associated with some stimulus. A certain action brings either pleasant or unpleasant consequences and thereby becomes either more likely or less likely to recur. So there we are. Constituted by genes and then continually adapting through formation of stimulus-stimulus associations and behavior-stimulus associations. The vertebrates can be conditioned in more complex ways that the invertebrates. Among vertebrates, the mammals seem to be conditioned in more complex ways than the nonmammals.

And that is a very large part of the story. But we want to know – is it just our vanity? – what distinguishes us from other animals. We are two-legged. Is that a distinguishing feature? No, birds also stand on two legs. But birds have feathers and we don’t. Well, there you have it: featherless bipeds. That’s us. How singularly unhelpful a definition that is.

Aristotle pegs us midway between beasts and the gods. The book of Genesis has us as the creature made in God’s image. As God has dominion over us, we are granted, according to Genesis,
dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
In the hierarchy of governance we are, as it were, the local regional viceroy for planet Earth – again, a sort of midway between the beasts and the gods.

But what makes beasts so unGodly? What do they lack that we have? It’s no help to say, “the spark of the divine,” because what is the spark of the divine? If it is defined as that which separates us from nonhuman animals, then the argument is circular and we’re back where we started. There’s nothing wrong with defining us as the animal with the spark of divinity as long as somewhere along the way you can say something more about what this divinity amounts to.

Rationality: we are the rational animal? Language: we are the speaking animal? Society: we are the sociable, civilization-building animal? Laughter: we are the laughing animal? Are these things our divinity? In a nutshell, yes, they are.

Rationality. What is that? Other animals have problem-solving abilities: the rat can figure out how to get through the maze. That’s a two-dimensional problem-solving. Squirrels, another rodent, are particular good at three-dimensional problem-solving, because going up and down are more salient options in their world. Most of the time we mean something more by “rationality” than problem-solving. We mean a particular kind of problem-solving; we mean, I think, a particular mode of communication. So to say something about this human (and possibly other animals as well) ability to be rational, we will have to say something about language ability.

Of course, lots of animals communicate. Even insects communicate. The ant communicates by laying down a scent trail for the other ants. Bees communicate with dance that lets the other bees know where the pollen source is. They communicate, but do they mean what they say? A thermometer communicates to you what the temperature is, but it does so without meaning to. Whether it reads 70 or 90 is a purely mechanical response to its environment, which raises the question: does, perhaps, the bee dance the way it does as a purely mechanical response to its stimuli? If you wanted to, you could follow this line on out and say that Shakespeare’s sonnets and Einstein’s equations were just the product of those brains responding to the stimuli of their environments in the way that they were genetically programmed to do, and if the rest of us can’t do those things, it’s because the rest of don’t have their combination of genetic programming and environmental stimuli. Yes, you could say that, if you wanted to. But you can’t say much more about what humans do – in particular you can’t put together a story about what range of possibilities are likely ones for a given human to do next, and which behaviors would be surprising, that is, you can’t feel you know someone – unless you think of them as having beliefs and desires, intentions and goals, hopes fears dreams and ambitions. You can get a perfectly good handle on thermometer behavior without imagining that what it does is the product of what it wants. But you can’t get much grasp of human behavior without thinking of it as the expression of the behavor’s desires and beliefs.

If you wanted to, you could ask this question, which philosophers occasionally run into: do humans REALLY have beliefs and desires -- or is it that we really are just stimulus-response mechanisms and beliefs and desires are mere fictional devices that we use to interpret one another and ourselves? But I’m not tempted to ask that question. In some sense it may be that we may are wired or taught to regard one another as having beliefs and desires, but it is absolutely vital to our continued civil and social lives together that we continue so regarding ourselves and each other, and the question of whether beliefs and desires are real is as silly as certain other philosophers’ questions: is that wall really there, or is it merely useful for us to act as if it were? Is the redness of a red apple in the apple or in the perceiver’s head?

So if I tell you that there are these really great flowers just over that hill, about a 100 yards in the direction of the sun, then you can figure I mean what I say. But does a bee mean it? Probably not. It’s probably just doing what it was wired to do, and no additional conceptual apparatus -- in particular, no conception of bee intentions -- is necessary to explain what it is doing.

What humans can do is put ourselves in each other’s shoes. We learn to do this around age four, and whether any other animals can do it is not at all clear. There’s a classic experiment that illustrates what I mean.
A child watches a puppet show involving two characters, Sally and Anne. After playing with a ball, Sally places it inside a basket and then steps outside. During Sally’s absence, Anne takes the ball out of the basket and places it inside a box. Sally returns. (Marc D Hauser, "Games Primates Play," Discover, September 1998, p. 52)
We then ask the children: Where will Sally search for the ball? The three-year-olds generally say, “the box.” They know the ball is in the box, and they assume that others know what they know. By age four, though, kids will generally answer, “the basket.” They understand that Sally would believe the ball was where she left it because Sally wasn’t there when the ball was moved. They are able to attribute to another a belief different from their own; and they make behavioral expectations of other people based on the beliefs attributed to those others. We can put ourselves in Sally’s shoes and understand what false beliefs her situation would have given her, and we can understand her in terms of her beliefs. That’s really an amazing thing. We humans are the beings that can relate to each other in that very complex way. No other species appears to be able to attribute to another a belief different from their own.

Only because we can do that – project ourselves into another’s situation and understand what would cause them to have beliefs different from our own beliefs – can we figure out how to act so as to deliberately induce a certain belief in another person. We can deliberately induce beliefs we know to be false. That is, humans can intentionally deceive.

Other animals pull off a kind of deception. The plover bird sees a potential threat to her nest approaching so she flies off a little ways and dives and spins around on the ground as if her wings were injured. But the wings aren’t injured, it’s just a tactic to distract the predator away from her nest. If a human did that, we would understand that she believes that she can cause the predator to believe that she is injured. But does the plover bird have any concept of what the predator believes? Most scientists of animal behavior say not. She is behaving the way that she is wired to behave, exhibiting behavior that natural selection has programmed into her because that behavior makes her offspring more likely to survive to reproduce. The behavior occurs and it works: no conception of what another animal would be believing is necessary. Of course WE are given to understand that the behavior works because of the belief created in the predator, but the plover probably has no notion of why it works. She just does it.

Our fellow primates are more complex. Chimps do some fascinating things. Chimp One has some food. Chimp One sees the larger Chimp Two coming. Chimp One hides the food. Chimp Two sees Chimp One returning as if from just having hidden some food. But Chimp Two acts nonchalant, as if he hadn’t seen anything. He calmly ambles off again, only to hide behind a tree and watch until Chimp One retrieves the food again, whereupon Chimp Two rushes out to snatch the food. Now it is OUR habit to view behaviors like this through the lens of: what beliefs are being intentionally induced in whom? It looks to US as if Chimp One wanted to cause Chimp Two to have the false belief that he didn’t have any food. But food hiding behavior can be learned because it is advantageous and can thus be exhibited by an animal that cannot form conceptions of what another animal believes. It looks to us as if Chimp Two wanted to cause Chimp One to have the false belief that he didn’t see anything suggestive of food, and that he was thus leaving the area. But that behavior too might have been learned because it got rewarded and the behavior might occur without the behaver having a conception of others’ beliefs. How could we settle this question?

One very basic way that we put ourselves in others’ shoes is by noticing what they can see. If I see that you can see the food, then I understand that you’ll form a belief about where it is, and if you can get to it, but I can’t, then I’ll ask you for it. But if I see that you can’t possibly see the food, then I won’t bother to ask you for it – you won’t know where it is. Chimps, however, don’t pick up on this. They will continue to beg for food from a human caretaker even when they can see that the caretaker has a large blindfold on, or a bag over his head, or a big screen obscuring the food from the caretaker. They seem unable to project themselves into the caretaker’s position and realize that from that position, the food can’t be seen, so the whereabouts of the food can’t be known, so there’s no point in asking him to get it for you.

These results are not conclusive. There’s more investigation to be done. But the indicators at this point are that we are unique among animals in having this capacity for this kind of empathy. Other animals care for and take care of each other, but we can see through each others eyes. Imperfectly, of course. But that we do it at all interconnects us in a fantastic way.

And language is a big part of how we understand one another’s beliefs and desires. Other animals communicate, for instance, that danger is nearby. But it’s apparently like a burglar alarm going off – they give the cry when the appropriate stimulus occurs. The burglar alarm isn’t expressing a belief about burglars, it’s just reacting to having been tripped. Other animals give out signs, but not symbols. The difference is that signs are reactions to specific present or recent stimuli, but symbols can be recalled and used at any time. I can ask you right now to imagine a one-legged woman rowing a boat across Lake Erie – and you can do it. That’s the power of symbols over mere signs. We can invoke them and respond to them at will.

Language isn’t a sudden instantaneous thing that just popped up. The various features that eventually were incorporated emerged gradually in the course of our evolution, so we would expect to see some beginnings of that ability in other animals. And we have been able to teach chimps and gorillas some rudiments of our very complex communication system. But we’re the only species with full-fledged language. How do we know? We don’t, for sure. We don’t know anything for absolute certainty. But it seems to me we have some pretty good indicators. We know from our examinations of the brain what the physiological requirements of symbol use are, what parts of the of the brain, when damaged, render a person unable to use language. It takes a really big brain to be able to invoke and respond to symbols at will. And we don’t find those elaborate structures in dogs or horses or dolphins, and only incipiently in primates. And language by its nature is the sort of thing by which language-users regulate one another’s behavior in straightforward ways. If other animals had language, we could see behavior regulation occurring. Now, you can certainly read a poem, and be very moved by it, yet its effects may be invisible to a third-party, but that is an ability which built up from a foundation of straightforward, easy-to-spot behavior-regulating uses of language. If other animals were using language, then it wouldn’t take all that much careful observation to see the ways that certain of their behaviors regulated the behaviors of those around them. Finally, everything we know about evolution tells us that it works on a “need to have” basis. It takes a lot of biological resources to build a brain that can use symbols. The other animals wouldn’t have that capacity if they didn’t need it; and our studies to date give us fairly detailed accounts of how they can survive and reproduce in the ways they do without that biologically very expensive capacity.

Our language multiplies many fold the power of our ability to attribute beliefs and desires to each other, to put ourselves in one another’s situations, to walk in each other’s shoes. We can not only infer – from, for example, seeing what you are able to see – what beliefs you have. We can tell each other what we think is so, and what we want. The effect, as Daniel Dennett puts it, is that,
Comparing our brains anatomically with chimpanzee brains (or dolphin brains or any other nonhuman brains) would be almost beside the point, because our brains are in effect joined together into a single cognitive system that dwarfs all others. They are joined by an innovation that has invaded our brains and no others: language. I am not making the foolish claim that all our brains are knit together by language into one gigantic mind, thinking its transnational thoughts, but, rather, that each individual human brain, thanks to its communicative links, is the beneficiary of the cognitive labors of the others in a way that gives it unprecedented powers. (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995, p. 381)
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck writes that the human being,
unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.
And therein lies our vaunted human rationality. It’s not any special error-detecting mechanism, nor any logic-rule-following guide. It’s just our willingness to talk to one another and to listen without stifling – to be as willing to learn from as to teach to. We can do this because we have language and the ability to project sympathetically into the other’s situation. And therein lies, too, our uniquely human capacity for irrationality: the intentional deceptions that we alone, seemingly, are capable of perpetrating – for the ability to project ourselves into one another’s situations makes deception possible, and language means we can tell each other lies.

But it also means I can understand what your hopes are, and what they mean to you, and you can know that I understand your hopes, and we can come to share and care about one another’s life projects. Because we can do that, human love and human community are in very important ways unlike any other animal’s care-taking or society. It is a true marvel that there should have ever arisen a species whose members can interconnect in those ways, ways which bind us together, and at the same time define us as distinct individuals each with our own perspective and gifts. We KNOW each other more thoroughly and intimately than the Biblical sense of knowing because we do, albeit partially, get inside one another’s heads, hear with each other’s ears, see with each other’s eyes. We KNOW each other because we know each other’s beliefs and desires – some of them. And I know that yours are often different from mine. It’s the usefulness of seeing how they are different that motivates the whole activity of projection and belief attribution in the first place, for if they weren’t different then we could all simply assume, with our three-year-olds, that everybody else knows what we know. So this capacity of ours ties us together BY recognizing our differences.

In his Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens remarks:
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
But what makes us seem such mysteries to each other is precisely that we know each other so well. It’s because we can get into each other’s heads sometimes that we feel so mystified on those occasions or issues which we cannot. Does it ever occur to an oyster that the other oysters are mysteries to it? Does it ever occur to a dolphin, or any other primate?

In a lot of ways we differ little from other mammals. In other primate groups we see social interaction, social cooperation, and we see mating behaviors and pecking orders that look a lot like our own playgrounds and board rooms. But we have this extra ability to understand one another as having beliefs and desires, which apparently not even chimps can do, and we have a language that can raise any subject at any time, that can record what we’ve learned so that we can then build up from there. Such powerful tools for understanding each other -- and therefore such powerful tools for manipulating and deceiving each other.
All we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.
Seek you the spark of the divine? Divinity shines there, in the good and honest use of these miraculous powers. Divinity shines there, in this unique human inheritance: the ability to share our selves in a process which creates us as distinct selves, the ability to build common enterprises together, the ability to cling empathically together against the darkness. Divinity shines there in human love and human community. Divinity shines there. Divinity shines here.

2011-05-29

On Being Animal

TWO POEMS

"The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
"Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
ON BEING ANIMAL

I had a professor once who said on the last day of our history of philosophy course:
As we’ve seen, the big questions in philosophy have changed from century to century. All the old questions, though, are still unanswered. Western civilization didn’t answer them, it just moved on. In philosophy, progress comes not from answering questions, but slowly, gradually, getting over them.
One of the questions that used to seize my interest is this one: What does it mean to be human? This question seemed to matter. It seemed to matter because whatever it was that was unique to our species would therefore be a precious and sacred thing, something to cultivate and get more of. If it was reason that made us human, then we ought to try hard to be rational in all things. If it’s the use of ethical principles, then those principles take on grand significance. Or if it’s humor and laughter that makes us human – well, then, we better laugh.

Because, otherwise, . . . we forfeit our humanity. We've become . . . inhuman.

Indeed, the question of what it is to be human has inspired thinkers and activists that have done good work. For example, as recently as ten years ago, an anthology of essays came out titled, What Does It Mean To Be Human? compiled by Frederick Franck.

Contributors included the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Arias, and about 90 others, reflecting, says the dust jacket, "on our shared human condition and attempting to define a core set of human values in our rapidly changing society." Sounds like good and important work.

This notion of “our shared human condition,” once evoked a powerful and promising appeal, a vision of solidarity and cooperation and common cause. It doesn’t resonate for me so much today. Why not “our shared animal condition”?

And I’m not alone. There is a cultural shift afoot -- if not at hand. A number of people have begun to change in their attitudes toward animals. Sarah van Geloder, in Yes! Magazine writes:
Out of these contradictions, a relationship with animals that is both new, and very old, is emerging. We are questioning practices that treat animals as commodities, and instead, looking for respectful ways to coexist. We are moving toward relationships with animals that are more like those of indigenous peoples -- seeing animals as fellow creatures living alongside us in complex interdependent ecosystems.
That book 10 years ago might have been one last hurrah for a way of thinking that was already on its way out, the contributors almost all over 60 then. In fact, insofar as the question is still around, it has a different meaning now. Today, if you google the question, “What does it mean to be human?” you find material on human evolution – how our species’ physical traits and behaviors evolved over millions of years as our ancestors adapted to dramatic environmental changes – that sort of thing, like this from the Smithsonian Institute, in conjunction with this from National Geographic.

Interesting stuff, but not the sort of earnest investigation into “our shared human condition” that aimed to articulate core human values to be the foundation for universal justice and peace.

In some ways, in fact, the question has become the opposite of what it once was. The evolutionary story is a story about how a particular sort of animal, us, emerged into what it is. It’s the same kind of story that we’d tell about how bears evolved into their present form.

Or yaks. Or penguins. The old interpretation of “what does it mean to be human?” was just the opposite: what qualities distinguish us from all-the-other-animals-lumped together? The presumption was that we humans have some special provenance and responsibility as the bearers of this thing called “the human condition” that is both our burden and our glory. This notion of “the human condition” functioned to divide living things into two classes: humans, and everything else.

We were – I was – enthralled by this really interesting “condition” that only humans had. As I worked to negotiate this burden and glory of my "human condition," I don't think it ever entered my mind that there could even be such a thing as, say, “the equine condition” or “the raccoon condition.”

The newer approach to the question sees smooth gradations rather than sharp divides. Just a little more development in this or that section of the brain – and, in fact, a little shrinking in a few other brain areas -- and a little more opposability of the thumb, a little dropping down of the voice box – and there we are. We emerged from a process of gradually distinguishing ourselves as an animal, not from animals – a process essentially similar to the way that, say, the kestrel and the peregrine falcon came to be distinguished.

No, not THAT kind of falcon...

No, not that kind of falcon either . . .

There we go.


So the big philosophical question, “what does it mean to be human?” as that question used to be understood -- is one that I have gotten over. If you yourself are not quite over it, and you’re wondering how you could get over it, I can tell you how I did it.

I started dating a veterinarian. Maybe that’s not really an option for you. I understand. It did work out nicely for me.
No, not that one. A wildlife veterinarian.
Yep. That's the one.
We got to that stage in the dating where I needed to say something like, “want to come up and see my etchings?” But I didn’t have any etchings. So I showed her a little booklet of essays I’d written. It's not nearly as romantic as etchings, I know. The last one was called, “On Being Human.” I described research findings about the human ability, which emerges at about age 4, to attribute to others beliefs that we ourselves do not have, and I wrote,
That’s actually an amazing thing. We humans are the beings that can relate to each other in that very complex way. No other species appears to be able to attribute to another a belief different from their own.
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "what girl wouldn’t be charmed out of her socks by that?" right? Nothing doing. We had our first argument. She accused me of arrogant human triumphalism. Well. What guy hasn’t been accused of arrogant human triumphalism?
(Judge for yourself: You can read my original "On Being Human" (1998) here.)

In any case, my views have changed. The way that opinions change is often like this: you simply stop thinking about the issue directly for a while. A year or two goes by in which, if the issue comes up, you shrug it off. Then one day, you’re ready to come back to it, and when you do, you find that you see things differently.

What I see differently in this case isn’t the answer to the question. It’s my attitude toward the question, and toward that answer. The question, what do humans have that other species don’t is now, for me, roughly on a par with: what do people of medium height have that shorter people and taller people don’t? I suppose there might be an answer, but it’s not a very compelling question.

And the comparison is apt because in the animal world, humans are sort of medium. There are some things we humans are really good at: like communicating learning and preserving it so we can build on it. We’re not the only ones that do that, but we are really good at it. Other things, humans are not so good at. Other species have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs live in a world of smells that we can but dimly imagine, and bats and dolphins live in a world of echolocation that we cannot imagine at all.

To get a sense of myself, to arrive at self-understanding, to feel my place and purpose in this universe, it turns out that it is not, after all, terribly helpful to know what separates me from other species. It is, instead, helpful to know what connects me with other species. The answer to the question, "Who am I? What am I?" consists mostly of stuff that nonhuman animals also have. I’m not going to truly know myself by picking out one or a few unusual skills – the ability to understand others as having beliefs that can be different from my own, for example (if that even is an example). I know myself by grasping the inheritance that I share with the gorilla -- with the gazelle -- with the goose -- with the gopher tortoise.

My world is taken in through eyes and ears that work pretty much like theirs do. Many of them live in, and are guided by, a world of smells that I am mostly oblivious to – but not entirely. The fast-track connection between the olfactory and memory is something my brain also has. I hunger as they do, I am susceptible to the same the fight-or-flight adrenaline surges. My reptilian brain is firing away down there, producing intuitions and “gut-impressions.”

I can pretend that my life is run by the cognitive processes of the neocortex. The fact is, it isn’t, and pretending that it is puts me out of touch with a huge portion of who I am. Ignoring my reptilian brain doesn’t make it go away – doesn’t make it stop guiding my behavior.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes.

This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first: brain studies show that the motor signals of movement are already going out to the muscles before any conscious awareness of an intention forms. Our story about ourselves as intentional, purposeful, and rational is made up after the fact. My neocortex and forebrain and language centers are really, really good at making up stories to rationalize whatever it is they notice I’m doing.

But that’s not where the doing came from.

It is possible for a human to sit down and reflect and plan and form an intention, and then carry it out. Possible. Also fairly rare. We humans can go for whole days without intention ever once preceding action. Yet my brain makes it seem to me that everything I did was just what I meant to do. That’s the delusion I live in.

To get to the truth about myself, I must attend and befriend my animality. I am made, as many species are, to walk the savannas and woodlands of this wild earth. It is where deep parts of me find their greatest comfort and ease. The thin layer of neocortex can make the rest of my body sit in front of a computer all day. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, waiting to return to their element.

Friends, the path to become “more deeply human is by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.” (David Abram) Only then are we able to hear that the honking of wild geese actually is, “over and over, announcing your place in the family of things” (Mary Oliver).

I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, the level of detail of envisioning the future that my more developed forebrain can do, nor the wonders of language produced and comprehended by my human versions of Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. These functions are great. They are only a small part of who I am. They also cause problems. The forebrain that envisions the future can so easily start obsessively worrying about that future -- in contrast to the "peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief" (Wendell Berry). The language centers, creating their own little world of story loops, can leave me oblivious to the nonlinguistic awareness of each moment.

Closer contact with, and awareness of, the animal in me -- "the soft animal of [my] body, lov[ing] what it loves" -- causes a greater respect for my fellow beings who, with me, share the burdens and the glories of "the mammalian condition," "the warm-blooded condition," or "the vertebrate condition."

And there’s a feedback cycle, because as heightened self-awareness leads to greater respect for my fellow vertebrates, so also greater respect for my fellow vertebrates helps me develop better self-awareness. For example, for me, deciding to be vegetarian has led to greater self-awareness. Let me explain that.

Human relationships with nonhuman species are filled with tensions. We treasure wildlife, yet almost all of us, me included, find it really hard to stop the sort of spending habits that we know are causing a wave of extinctions. Many of us are outraged by abuses of dogs and cats,
yet we eat food that comes from an industry that keeps [equally sensitive and intelligent] animals crowded in sickening confinement. (Sarah van Gelder, Yes! Magazine, Spring 2011)
The meat industry, in the US alone, each year, slaughters 35 million cows, 105 million pigs, and almost 9 billion chickens. I honor that we have different opinions about this, and I know that what I’m about to say will disappoint my vegan friends, but here goes:

I don’t see the slaughtering as the problem. Putting them out of the unremitting misery and pain to which factory farms consign these animals for their whole lives is the kindest thing we do for them.

It’s not that they die that is the issue. We all die. It’s the life that matters. What those numbers mean to me is that every year the US meat industry is bringing 35 million more cows, 105 million more pigs, 9 billion more chickens into lives of constant agony.

Sometimes, not every day or even every week, I sit still and take in what I know about those conditions from the documentaries I have seen and the detailed descriptions I have read in books and articles. We know enough about cow and pig and even chicken physiology to know that what is going on in them parallels what goes on in humans under conditions of extreme pain and stress. I sit with that, the intensity of the suffering and the vast, vast scale of it, and I weep.

For wild species, a "good life" is having undisturbed habitat such as they were made for, and being left free from human interference or encroachment.

Not all species are wild. Our planet now has millions of dogs and cats and domesticated cows, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. Whatever wild habitat their ancestors once roamed is not the habitat that they are prepared to be sent back to. They’ve evolved, and the wild wouldn’t be the good life for them anymore. What would be? The life they evolved for is one of small farms, spacious pasture, room to move around, form relationships with the other farm species, including the humans.

There’s a small movement afoot for what are called "default livestock." It looks like it offers domesticated livestock species their version of the good life: space to explore, relationships, mating and offspring – meaningful and appropriate participation in the cycle of life of which we are all a part. Default livestock is also environmentally much better, since default livestock only eat food that humans can’t or won’t eat. It’s done that way in much of the world, and in permaculture.

Factory farms, on the other hand, use grain feed. It takes about 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of cow meat. That’s a loss of 9 pounds of grain that we could have been feeding people with – or letting more land lie fallow, reducing nitrogren pollution from the fertilizers and pesticides, or reducing the cutting down of forest for yet more grain fields. It takes about 4 pounds of grain to produce one pound of pig meat. Right now, 35% of the world’s global cereal production is being fed to livestock.

It's true that if all livestock were “default livestock” we would not have as much meat. We would, however, have more than you’re probably thinking – if Simon Fairlie is right. Fairlie’s book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance came out a few months ago. Fairlie estimates that a worldwide default livestock system would provide enough meat for everyone on the planet – all nearly-7-billion of us – to have the equivalent of three hamburgers a week. Maybe that’s a bit less than you’re used to. It’s four or five times what a lot of people get now. And it’s sustainable.

There are farms today that do provide their livestock with everything we now understand the good life for livestock entails. It is possible to get meat from these farms -- the meat of animals that had a reasonably good life for the species that they are. Possible, but for most of us, not easy. Claims that meat is "organic" or "free-range" or "cruelty free" are often misleading, the claims are unregulated, and the animals are often still subjected to considerable misery. Finding a reliably humane source of meat takes research and an actual visit to the farm to see for yourself, and I personally just don't care enough about meat to invest that time and effort. So I play it safe and remain contentedly vegetarian. If I were, however, somehow assured that all meat being sold was from default livestock, and that the animals actually had a good life of a reasonable span, I might – and here’s where I appall my vegan friends again – and I’m sorry – I might . . . have a BLT every once in a while.

I might. Maybe once or twice a year.

Species have many, many different strategies for perpetuating themselves. In the Australian redback spider, the much smaller male inseminates the female, and then she eats him. He gives up his life to provide her with the nutrition that will improve the chances of his offspring hatching. It’s the bargain that he struck with evolution to get his genes passed on. As pigs, cows, sheep, chickens evolved into their domesticated forms, they struck a similar bargain with evolution. Humans provided the conditions in which they bred – and humans helped them do so: with even, in the last century or so, pretty good veterinary expertise to help with difficult deliveries. On the old-fashioned farms the critters got to have a reasonable span of life. If they had that span of life, and then the slaughter itself was as humane and as free of pain and stress as possible, that would be a very different scenario from the present reality.

My concern with the life rather than the death has a parallel in Unitarian theology and history. We are the people who, 400 years ago, turned away from the prevailing European emphasis on Jesus’ death as the atonement for our sins. Sixteenth-century Unitarian theologian Faustus Socinus settled among our early Polish churches. His extensive works laid out a theology that told us, look to Jesus’ life, what he did, what he taught. It is the quality of his living that needs our attention, not his death. For the factory farmed animals today, I believe, it is the quality of their lives that needs our attention, not the fact of their death.

And the quality of the lives of the cows, pigs, and chickens in factory farms is the worst. It is the biggest, harshest, most painful ongoing cruelty on the planet. If you don’t know what factory farms do to those animals, the conditions in which they must spend their lives -- well, then, why don’t you know?

I can guess why. Because the cognitive dissonance can get pretty rough.

So when I say that, for me, deciding to be vegetarian helped my path toward self-awareness, I mean that when I no longer had to push certain knowledge out of my mind just in order to have lunch, then I was just a little bit more available to love and respect the creatures of my world. When my food choices no longer supported the harshest ongoing cruelty on the planet, then I was a tiny bit better able to respect and honor my whole self -- including the parts of me that are just like them: pain receptors work the same way, adrenaline and fear and stress work the same way – and creature comforts, if they could get them, would work pretty much the same way, too.

I was better able to be with all the animal that I am.

I wish that for you.

Amen.

* * *

POSTSCRIPT
Reprise and Intermingling: Two Poems

"The Peace of
"WILD
Geese"
Things"
BY
Mary Oliver
Wendell Berry
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about
When
DESPAIR
for the world grows in me
yours,
AND I
will tell you mine.
awake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
Meanwhile the world
I go
goes on.
and lie down
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of
Meanwhile the
WILD
geese,
things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief
I come into the presence of still water
and
high in the clean blue air,
I feel above me the day-blind stars
are heading home again.
waiting with their light.
For a time I rest
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
in the grace of
THE WORLD
offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese,
harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
and am free.
- - - - -
A substantially revised version of this post is now up. For "On Being Animal (revised)", click here.

2011-05-28

Saturdao 3

Dao De Jing, verse 2a

James Legge (1891):
All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.
So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.
Archie Bahm (1958):
It is because we single out something and treat it as distinct from other things that we get the idea of its opposite. Beauty, for example, once distinguished, suggests its opposite, ugliness.
And goodness, when we think of it, is naturally opposed to badness.
In fact, all distinctions naturally appear as opposites. And opposites get their meaning from each other and find their completion only through each other. The meaning of “is” and “is not” arise from our distinguishing between them.
Likewise, “difficult and easy,” “long and short,” “high and low,” “loud and soft,” “before and after” – all derive their meanings from each other.
Frank MacHoven (1962):
Whenever the most beautiful is perceived ugliness arises, the least beautiful. Whenever good is perceived evil exists, its natural opposite.
Thus, perception involves opposites: reality and fantasy are opposing thoughts; difficult and simple oppose in degree; long and short oppose in distance; high and low oppose in height; shrill and deep oppose in tone; before and after oppose in sequence.
D.C. Lau (1963)
The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly;
the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.
Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;
The difficult and the easy complement each other;
The long and the short off-set each other;
The high and the low incline towards each other;
Note and sound harmonize with each other;
Before and after follow each other.
Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972):
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Stan Rosenthal (1984):
"Letting Go of Comparisons"
We cannot know the Tao itself,
nor see its qualities direct,
but only see by differentiation,
that which it manifests.
Thus, that which is seen as beautiful
is beautiful compared with that
which is seen as lacking beauty;
an action considered skilled
is so considered in comparison
with another, which seems unskilled.
That which a person knows he has
is known to him by that which he does not have,
and that which he considers difficult
seems so because of that which he can do with ease.
One thing seems long by comparison with that which is, comparatively, short.
One thing is high because another thing is low;
only when sound ceases is quietness known,
and that which leads
is seen to lead only by being followed.
Jacob Trapp (1987):
“Relativity”
It is man’s limitation to know
Beauty in contrast to ugliness,
Goodness in contrast to evil,
Being in contrast to non-being.
Men think in terms of opposites:
The difficult or the easy, in doing;
Short or long, in measurement;
High or low, in position or tone;
Earlier or later, in time.
Stephen Mitchell (1988):
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Victor Mair (1990):
When all under heaven know beauty as beauty, already there is ugliness;
When everyone knows goodness, this accounts for badness.
Being and nonbeing give birth to each other,
Difficult and easy complete each other,
Long and short form each other,
High and low fulfill each other,
Tone and voice harmonize with each other,
Front and back follow each other –
it is ever thus.
Michael LaFargue (1992):
When everyone in the world recognizes the elegant as elegant...
then ugliness has just appeared.
When all recognize goodness as good...
then the not-good has just appeared.
Yes:
'Being' and 'nothing' give birth one to the other
'the difficult' and 'the easy' give full shape to one another
'what excels' and 'what falls short' form one another
'the noble' and 'the lowly' give content to one another
the back and the front follow one another.
Always.
Peter Merel (1995):
“Abstraction”
When beauty is abstracted
Then ugliness has been implied;
When good is abstracted
Then evil has been implied.
So alive and dead are abstracted from nature,
Difficult and easy abstracted from progress,
Long and short abstracted from contrast,
High and low abstracted from depth,
Song and speech abstracted from melody,
After and before abstracted from sequence.
GNL 4.1
“Distinction”
When beauty is discovered

Then ugliness emerges;

When good is discovered

Then evil emerges.
So alive and dead are distinguished from nature,

Difficult and easy from progress,

Long and short from contrast,

High and low from depth,

Song and speech from melody,

After and before from sequence.
Ursula LeGuin (1997):
“Soul food”
Everybody on earth knowing
that beauty is beautiful
makes ugliness.
Everybody knowing
that goodness is good
makes wickedness.
For being and nonbeing
arise together;
hard and easy
complete each other;
long and short
shape each other; high and low
depend on each other;
note and voice
make the music together;
before and after
follow each other.
Ron Hogan (2002):
If something looks beautiful to you,
something else must be ugly.
If something seems good,
something else must seem bad.
You can't have
something without nothing.
If no job is difficult,
then no job is easy.
Some things are up high
because other things are down low.
You know you're listening to music
because it doesn't sound like noise.
All that came first,
so this must be next.
Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (2003):
As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful are beautiful,
There is already ugliness.
As soon as everyone knows the able,
There is ineptness.
Determinacy (you) and indeterminacy (wu) give rise to each other,
Difficult and easy complement each other,
Long and short set each other off,
High and low complete each other,
Refined notes and raw sounds harmonize (he) with each other,
And before and after lend sequence to each other –
This is really how it all works.
Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004)
When the world recognizes beauty as beauty, ugliness arises.
When the world recognizes good as good, evil arises.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy define each other.
Long and short form each other.
High and low support each other.
Tone and voice accompany each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo (2007):
Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.
Is and Isn’t produce each other.
Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice,
After is followed by before.

Remember this day. We shall not see such similarity of translation again. The point here in the first half of verse 2 is comparatively simple and straightforward: not a whole lot for translators to disagree about. Even Bahm is pretty much in line on this one. The repetition of such similarity does drive home a point, reminding me that the symbol of Daoism is the yin-yang: the black and the white offsetting each other, each defining the space of the other, just as this verse says.

Differentiation defines -- not always through opposition. Rather than opposing, sometimes the terms of the pair "complement" or "rest upon", or "complete," or "harmonize with," or "follow," or "lend sequence to," or are "tested by," or "shape" each other.

The cumulative effect also, eventually, is to recommend the irreality of all judgments. We are told that, “high is determined by low,” which teaches us that both high and low are unreal, which teaches us that we could drop all this judging of things as high or as low if we wanted to.

So what's up with the parentheses in the Legge? Which is it? Do existence and nonexistence give birth to one another, or is it only that the idea of the one gives birth to the idea of of the other? Ah, grasshopper. Same thing.

At the end of this section, we read, “before and after follow each other” (LeGuin) or a very similar variation such as “After is followed by before” (Addis, Lombardo), or, venturing just a bit afield, “Before and after oppose in sequence” (MacHovec). All this creates a context within which I appreciate Hogan’s smart-ass lip: “All that came first, so this must be next.”
* * *
Next: Saturdao 4.
Previous: Saturdao 2.
Beginning: Saturdao 1.

2011-05-27

The Real Wealth of Nations

Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote seven principles. The first of those principles is, "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." It behooves us, and any allies also concerned to promote worth and dignity, to look carefully into the questions: What factors most contribute to a populace's sense of itself as having lives of worth, value, dignity, well-being? Worth and dignity are inherent, yet are not always manifest, promoted, or fully enjoyed as the blessing they are. What factors most undermine the possibilities for a life in which worth and dignity are manifest and celebrated?

There is much we don't know about how our societies can best engender lives that manifest their inherent worth and dignity. In the last decade, though, we've learned a few things. We have begun to understand that the true wealth of a people, the real measure their well-being, is not very well captured by their nation's Gross Domestic Product; and we have begun to refine better measures.

Adrian White of Britain’s University of Leicester tackled the question of comparing well-being, overall satisfaction with life, in 178 countries. Health, low poverty, access to basic education, and being a citizen of a small country are the most significant factors that correlated with high satisfaction with life.

Happiest country? Denmark. It has a high standard of living, negligible poverty, government-run health-care for all, excellent public education for all – and, because it’s a small population, they have a strong sense of identity. Identity does matter. I guess they go around humming, “There’s nothing like a Dane.”

Numbers two, three, and four: Switzerland, Austria, and Iceland – all of them small countries. They have low crime rates, good infrastructure, good education – good welfare states that provide quality government-run healthcare, provide job training and job placement so unemployment are poverty are low. In these countries, public education is well-funded, and high percentages of people have college degrees. There is extensive and efficient public transportation systems (compare that to the US where studies show that for us, two of the three least happy times of the day are the commute to work and the commute back home). These countries also have beautiful picturesque scenery; gender equality and societies of open acceptance of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders; democratic governments and engaged citizenries.

Something else all of the four happiest countries in the world have: a lot of snow. If snow is what makes people happy, we Floridians are in the wrong place.

Coming in at number 5 in well-being and satisfaction with life: the Bahamas! All right! There are indeed different paths to life satisfaction. The Bahamas have relatively high poverty, but strong family values, beautiful weather, a laid-back lifestyle – and those popular alcoholic drinks called Bahama Mamas – combine to make for a life very different from Denmark, but also very satisfying.

Then, for numbers 6 and 7, we're back to the snow: Finland and Sweden. Numbers 8 through 12: Bhutan, Brunei, Canada, Ireland, and Luxembourg. All of the top 12 are fairly low-population countries. High population nations have a harder time of it.

African countries did the worst. Zimbabwe, with an AIDS rate of 25%, an average life expectancy of 39, and an 80% poverty rate, you’d expect not to have high well-being. It was next-to-last. Burundi was last, racked by conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis (BusinessWeek Europe, 2006 October 11).

Adrian White’s study was published in 2006. There have since been further and larger studies: the World Values Survey in 2008; and the Gallup World poll is constantly tracking results around the world. They use telephone surveys where there are phones, and door-to-door interviews in less-developed regions. They assess well-being on two measures:

One, they ask subjects to reflect on their overall satisfaction with their current lives and also with their anticipated future lives, on a scale from 0, worst possible life, to 10, best possible life.

Two, they asked a series of questions about how each subject had felt the previous day: did they feel well-rested, respected, free of pain, intellectually engaged, et cetera.

They combined the measures for an overall score (Forbes, 2010 July 14). The different studies, with slightly different methodologies produce some shuffling around of the order. The most constant finding of the various studies is that Denmark, over and over, appears as number 1. The latest Gallup World Poll, released last July (2010), found the five happiest countries to be: Denmark, Finland, Norway…and tied for fourth place, Sweden and the Netherlands. The United States is now up to 14. The top five countries are generally wealthy – but they aren’t the wealthiest. By GDP, the top five countries in well-being rank only 19th, 21st, 5th, 16th, and 12th in GDP per person.

The happiest countries have their basic needs taken care of to a higher degree than other countries. And again we see that different strategies for national happiness can work. Some relatively poor nations score high in well-being. In this latest Gallup World Poll, Costa Rica and New Zealand are tied for 6th happiest, even though New Zealand is 37th in GDP per capita, and Costa Rica is 76th.

Some wealthy countries are less satisfied with life than some poorer ones. Poor countries that sustain high well-being tend to do it with factors like “solidarity among tight-knit communities, religious conviction, and patriotism” (BusinessWeek Europe, 2008 August 20).

Cultural factors play out in other ways that aren’t clear. For instance, the French are down at 44th. Is that because French culture cultivates dissatisfaction? It don’t know. It is the country, after all, that invented ennui. Still, I think we have to say that you can be wrong about a lot of things, but by-and-large, the role of self-delusion on this is fairly small. For the most part, if you think you’re satisfied with your life, then you are. A culture that encourages thinking of yourself as satisfied is a culture that helps you be satisfied. Danish culture encourages an attitude summed up in their word hygge (hooga).
Difficult to translate and even harder to comprehend, hygge roughly describes a cozy, convivial sentiment that involves strong family bonds. . . . [and the sense] that you are not supposed to have anything to do except let go. (BusinessWeek Europe, 2008 August 20)
The newest Gallup World Poll has Russia in 73rd, Japan at 81st, with India and China at 115th and 125th. The deeply impoverished nations of Africa retain their position as least happy places on the planet.

What does all this tell us?

First, the fact that much of Africa is in misery warrants our attention. Straightforward old-fashioned economics tells us some of that story. The per capita GDP per year in the United States is $48,000. As you go down the list of nations ranked by per capita GDP, you get half-way down the list and there’s Jamaica at $7,700 a year – less than one-sixth, per person, of the US, yet still more than half the countries in the world. You get three-fourths of the way down the list and there’s Micronesia at $2,200 per person per year. Nations at the very bottom of the list are all African. In Burundi, Congo, Zimbabwe, the Gross Domestic Products, respectively, are $400 per person per year, $300 per person per year, and $200 per person year.

How do they live? Not well – and not long: life expectancy in Zimbabwe is the world’s lowest at 37 years for men, 34 years for women (Bob Herbert, "Zimbabwe is Dying," New York Times, 2009 Jan 16). What does the worth and dignity of a person require? They have worth and dignity – that is inherent and that is the conviction of our faith. What is required to affirm and promote that worth and dignity? People require basic medical care and nutrition; a house. People who are largely free of disease (and we have the capability to get disease way down from where it is) and reasonably healthy, have a chance to be thriving.

"Thriving" is the word that researchers use. On that 0 to 10 scale, individuals who rate their current lives as a “7” or higher and their future an “8” or higher are counted as “thriving.” In Denmark, 82 percent of the population is thriving. Here in the US, 57 percent are thriving. There are 13 African countries where the percent of people thriving is 1 to 5 percent. If we believe in promoting worth and dignity, we must believe in the need to address conditions of such deep and wide despair.

Disease will come to us all if we survive accidents long enough, but let us cure what we can -- and then look to what else a reasonably healthy person needs to thrive. This is what it takes to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

I am not talking about charity, about simply sending more and more crates of food and medicine. I am not talking about us giving them what they need. I take my cue here from the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of community organizations started by Saul Alinksy in Chicago in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Alinsky’s principles also led to the organization PICO – People Improving Communities through Organizing, of which Gainesville’s Action Network is a member. When these groups give training in Community Organizing, they teach a principle they call the “iron rule”: never do for others what they can do for themselves. It’s a complement to the golden rule.

Together the golden and iron rules offer guidance on how to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And: Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Violation of either rule is failure to respect the other, failure to stand with them as equals, failure to respond with compassion to real needs while also honoring what abilities they do have, failure to affirm and promote the worth and dignity that inheres to them.

So I am not talking about more charity, though sometimes that is called for. Rather than us giving to them, I mean participating with them to explore ways to set up a system so that everyone can have the opportunity to provide for themselves. Systems of exploitation from outside and tribal conflicts inside Africa call for our attention to lift them from misery. At the same time, for the rest of the world and ourselves, thriving calls for more than mere subsistence. Subsistence is stressful.

To affirm and promote inherent worth and dignity everywhere we must go beyond mere economics. Gross domestic product and gross national product, as we have seen, have a role but not always the main or decisive role in human thriving. We need another measure. We need to look less at gross national product and more at gross nation happiness. We need to look at measures of human well-being that also take into account the planet’s well-being. And that means we do have to do value measurements. The new field of ecological economics, for example, seeks to give nature credit for all the value she produces for us.

Natural resources have always counted as part of an economic picture, but traditional economics has not noticed such things as the value of the nutrient cycling performed for us by oceans and estuaries. In standard economics, a tree is a tree, and it has a certain value for timber. In ecological economics, if the tree is surplus to what is needed for ecosystem sustainability, if systems of replanting and replacement are adequate, fine, but if harvesting it isn’t sustainable then the damage the ecosystem must be subtracted from the value of the timber. Every species genome represents a measurable instructional capital, and if cutting down the tree is a part of habitat destruction that leads to species extinction, the value of that capital must also be subtracted.

I know that, really, a tree is priceless – and a species is beyond measure. If you say to me, Meredith, you can’t put a number on the beauty of nature or the wholeness that comes from communing with a natural setting, then I’m going to say you’re right. That nature not be commodified – turned into one more commodity – requires our vigilance. At the same time, there are people who need houses. The homeless, the squatters, the refugees and the shantytown residents across this weary globe need real houses, and a little furniture and fuel to cook with and potable water to drink. They have inherent worth and dignity – and we fail in our covenant to affirm and promote their worth and dignity if we aren’t willing to look at how their basic human needs can be met. And that means we have to make determinations of when it’s worth it to chop down some trees and when it isn’t.

We love our seventh principle: respect for the interconnected web of existence. Our calling is to combine that respect, that love of nature, with the affirmation of every one’s worth and dignity. We need ways that traditional economics doesn’t account for to give a quantitative measurement to what, yes, is priceless, yet must be balanced against something else that’s priceless: human thriving. The field of ecological economics is doing that. It’s a new field, and it’s still feeling its way, but its promising.

That’s just one part of new calculations to much more accurately assess our true well-being. So go back to that first list of nations with high well-being. Adrian White’s study had Bhutan at number 8 in the well-being of the population. Bhutan? It’s between India and Tibet, east of Nepal and north of Bangladesh.

Bhutan's area is about half the size of Indiana, and its 2.3 million population is less than half of Indiana’s. Bhutan’s GDP per capita, in US dollars, is $1,400. The average GDP of the other 11 countries in Adrian White's top 12: over $33,600 per person per year. $33,600 per capita vs. $1,400 GDP per capita. What’s happening here?

In 1972, King Singye Wanchuk succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father. Singye was only 17. He set a course toward modernizing his little country, where many people still lived as they had for 100s of years.

He happened to make an offhand remark that his people needed Gross National Happiness more than Gross National Product – and the concept stuck. Advisors and academics set to work to develop instruments to measure the population’s well-being. Soon thereafter, and ever since, proposed policies in Bhutan must be accompanied by a GNH impact statement indicating how the policy will affect Gross National Happiness. Policies are approved only if the GNH impact is shown to be positive.

King Wanchuk believed that material and spiritual development must occur side by side with each reinforcing the other. As Bhutan has developed the concept of Gross National Happiness, the Four Pillars of GNH are:
  • the promotion of sustainable development;
  • preservation and promotion of cultural values;
  • conservation of the natural environment
  • establishment of good governance.
These four pillars are transcultural. They constitute the real wealth of any nation. They are the conditions that nurture thriving lives of manifest worth and dignity. Bhutan's analysts went on to further specify eight factors for their country to use in measuring its Gross National Happiness:
  • Health: physical, mental and spiritual.
  • Time-balance: family, work, leisure and spiritual practice.
  • Social and community vitality;
  • Cultural vitality;
  • Education;
  • Living standards;
  • Ecological vitality – as traditional economics would measure them, is a factor, but only one of the eight.
  • And finally, good governance.
"Good governance" meant democratizing. The people loved their king. In this country where the predominant religion is one of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the king is a both secular ruler and national pastor. They didn’t want to vote. They didn’t want a contentious parliament haggling with their king. The king insisted.
Against considerable opposition from his subjects, the popular monarch gradually moved his country toward democracy by insisting on shedding his royal powers in favor of an elected assembly, and executive council of ministers chosen by the assembly, and a separate system of courts. (Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness, 2010, p. 1)
It took a while. Bhutan finally had its first ever national elections to choose members of its legislature in 2008.

Democracy is a key part of national happiness. We see that in the nation’s that score highest in well-being: they’re democracies. Indeed, research finds significant variation in happiness from canton to canton within Switzerland. The more direct democracy (initiatives, referenda, citizen assemblies) in a given canton, the happier the people. Moreover, these positive effects show up in the citizens in those cantons – the ones eligible to participate in direct democracy – and not in foreign residents.

King Wanchuk and his team continued to develop the concept of GNH. They devised 72 key indicators for measuring progress and evaluating policies. And the country is making solid progress in all areas. From Bhutan, the idea has spread, and the work they did there has served as the foundation for the Global Surveys of National Happiness I cited earlier.

We humans are gradually figuring this thing out. We are learning better and better how to honor the fact that every one has inherent worth and dignity. We haven’t yet figured out how to craft a system in which everyone has an opportunity to thrive, but we’re starting to figure out how to measure how we’re really doing, and that’s a crucial step.

* * * * *
For other sermons on this blog see: Sermon Index.

2011-05-25

Staff Issues

Koan of the Week
Gateless Gate #44
Bajiao’s Staff

Bajiao Huiqing (Basho Esei, b. 880?), 13th Generation.
Line: Mazu (8th Gen.) to Baizhang to Guishan to Yangshan to Nanta to Bajiao.

THE CASE
Master Bajiao said to the assembly, "If you have a staff, I will give it to you. If you have no staff, I will take it away from you!"
WUMEN'S COMMENT AND VERSE
Having it support us, we wade across a river that has no bridge. Having it accompany us, we return to the village on a moonless night. But if you call it a staff, you will go to hell as swiftly as an arrow.

The depths and shallows everywhere
Are all within his grip;
It supports the heavens and sustains the earth,
Everywhere it enhances the spirit of our sect.

What is the self?
This Bajiao said: Facing south and seeing the big dipper.
Such transparency comes from years with the staff,
Getting one home in the dark,
The staff great-great-grandfather Baizhang used to poke
a fox's dead body.
A wild bird returns to her nest
And feeds down the gullets of her young:
What you have is given
continuously.
And lack itself is taken away.
Continuously.
Facing your computer, see the staff.

* * *

Next: Don't Beat the Dog

Previous:
The Old In and Out
What Is the Sound of an Arrow Hitting Oatmeal?

2011-05-24

Spirituality of Resistance, 2

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
- Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene ii)

I ended the previous post (click here) with, “there’s more to it.” I'm not going to back off from, but rather dive into -- for our lives bear tragedies far beyond mosquito bites.

In the story, you'll recall, the farmer raises a fine stallion, and it’s stolen, and it comes back with more horses, one of them throws of the son, breaks his leg, which saves the son from having to join the army. Good, bad, who knows? It just is what it is, right?

Well, wait a minute. The story ended too soon. What about that war that the army was going to fight – forcibly conscripting young men (maybe young women, too – though it’s an old story from ancient China, so in the context of this story, probably not) – to go and kill other young people, likely also forcibly conscripted? It’s one thing to say, a horse comes and goes, and we don’t have to think about it as good or bad. But what about war? Death and loss and suffering on a huge scale. Can we be so shrug-shouldered about that? Would we want to be?

The second of the six "sources of the living tradition we share," articulated in the Unitarian Universalist Association's by-laws is:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
What about the work of those prophets? Don’t we need to be able to judge what is good and what is evil in order to confront evil, as the prophetic voices of the past did? If we answer the horrors of abuse, torture, young girls enslaved in prostitution, sweatshops, by saying, "Good, bad, who knows?" then how can we be prophets?

Can we go through life saying, it’s all good, it’s all good? War. It’s all good, so let it happen. Greed, destruction of the planet. It’s all good, so let it happen. It’s one thing for the annoyance of a mosquito bite to dissolve under the gaze of attention. It's quite another thing to face the massive scale of harm humans inflict. How can we say that's all OK? It's not OK.

The loss of a loved one. That's not OK. How could anybody say that was OK? Are we stones that have no feeling?

War, and destruction, and denial of human rights. Those are not OK. The Carolina Parakeet, vast flocks of which used to cover the Eastern U.S., was hunted and it's habitat cut down until it went extinct 100 years ago, and the world lost forever the green and golden beauty of these wonderful birds. That's not OK. Ongoing species loss, destruction of the rainforests, melting of the polar ice caps: these things are not OK.

Yesterday, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a majority, addressed the awful pit of despair known as California's prisons, and he said that level of overcrowding is not OK.

There can seem to be a dilemma between the peace of equanimity and the need for courageous confrontation with harm and oppression. There is one word which names the solvent to dissolve that dilemma: compassion.

You may be confronting the apparent dilemma if you are asking yourself: If there is no good or bad, then why be compassionate? The question itself is the source of the dilemma. Try asking the question from the other side. Instead of looking at what would motivate compassion, look at what blocks compassion.

What is it that blocks your compassion? What keeps you from acting in every moment out of love and caring for any and all who suffer?

I find in my own experience that every time I have failed to be compassionate, it is because there was something I was having a hard time accepting. There was something I didn't want to lose, or didn't want to get. When I can move into a place of accepting reality just as it is, then the barriers to my compassion fall away. I find some judgment about what is good and what is bad at work in me everytime I have failed to be compassionate.

The phrase is: "spirituality of resistance." "Spirituality" refers to the cultivation of inner peace and equanimity, awareness of the final goodness of the universe in which grief and joy are parts of an overarching harmony. Spirituality means being fully at home with our lives and on this earth. "To everything there is a season."

"Resistance" refers to resistance to systems of oppression, harm, ecological destruction, and greed -- resistance to the tendencies to consume and use up the planet, to destroy without thought -- resistance to the impulses to violence -- resistance to whatever is life-denying.

I am NOT talking about "balance." I am not saying, "Have some balance in your life: a balance of inner peace some of the time and activism some of the time." Oh, no. I'm saying that our work as human beings is to cultivate our capacity to have both spirituality and resistance at the same time, all the time, each as the ongoing manifestation of the other.

The energy for resistance flows fiercest when we are not committed to our own ideas, opinions, ideologies about good and bad. Compassion for human suffering flows freest from us when it flows from a source in equanimity. Compassion is drained by the energy we pour into denial or into wanting things to be different. Presence to "just is" leads to action that "just is" -- seeing suffering for what it is, and bringing ourselves to address it as we can, without attachment to results. Compassion does not aim to "make things better" (though it does), it aims only to manifest itself.

There is an aliveness in equanimity, a vitality to inner peace. It is not lethargic complacency -- just the opposite. When the wet blanket of craving and fear and judgment is taken off our heart, we become more fully present to just what is -- more able to engage with our world. From love for all things of this earth just as they are comes the strongest power to resist what hurts them.

2011-05-23

Spirituality of Resistance, 1


An old story from China:
When an old farmer’s stallion wins a prize at a country show, his neighbor calls round to congratulate him, but the old farmer says, “Good, bad, who knows?”
The next day some thieves come and steal his valuable animal.
His neighbor comes to commiserate with him, but the old man replies, “Good, bad, who knows?”
A few days later the spirited stallion escapes from the thieves and joins a herd of wild mares, leading them back to the farm.
The neighbor calls to share the farmer’s joy, but the farmer says, “Good, bad, who knows?”
The following day, while trying to break in one of the wild mares, the farmer’s son is thrown and fractures his leg.
The neighbor calls to share the farmer’s sorrow. The farmer says, as before, "Good, bad, who knows?"
The following week the army passes by, forcibly conscripting soldiers for a war, but they do not take the farmer’s son because he cannot walk.
Good, bad. Who knows?
The Jewish and Christian traditions both study as scripture the wisdom text known as Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, 6:12, we read:
For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which they pass like a shadow?
Maybe we should give up this whole good-bad thing; stop judging, “this is good,” and “that is bad,” and “I like this,” and “I like that.”


When you say, “this is good” – this cake is good, or this video-game is good or this movie is good, or this house is good, or this friend is good, this person is good, then you are saying: this is something to be happy about. This is a reason to be happy.

What if you had no reason to be happy, you just were? If you have a reason for happiness, then that happiness can be taken away. The person you love could leave, the fun game could break, or stop being interesting. If you have a reason for loving life, what happens if that reason goes away? Can you be glad of aliveness for no reason at all?

When you say, “this is bad,” – this food is bad, this weather is bad, this school is bad -- then you are saying, this is something to be unhappy about. What if nothing were something to be unhappy about? What if you stopped wanting it to be different from what it is, and just noticed it for what it is?

Kids, if you ask your parents to go out for a walk around one of our lakes around here, you'll have a lovely chance to get out into nature. And you can also try this experiment: try it without any bug repellent one time.

The beauty of the trees and water -- that's good, you’re thinking. But without bug repellant, you are very likely to get a mosquito bite -- that’s bad, you’re thinking. Now here's the experiment. When that bite itches -- or you can do this any time you have an itch -- sit still, and give that itch all your attention. What an interesting sensation it is! There it is, maybe tingling a little. Do you feel an urge to scratch? Fine. Bring attention to that urge. Where is that urge to scratch coming from? Usually, I think, when we scratch, we want to make the itch stop because the itch distracts us from whatever else we’re trying to pay attention to. But what if there’s nothing else but that itch that we’re paying attention to? Suddenly we see that the only thing bad about the itch was that we didn’t want it.

This is what that farmer knew: if you don’t judge what is good and what is bad, then everything just is. Without specifying reasons to be happy, everything is a reason to be happy. Without specifying reasons to be unhappy, nothing is a reason to be unhappy.

You think? Actually, there’s a bit more to it. I’ll go into that next time (click here).