Feminism and the Roots of All Problems

War and Peace

Interestingly, it is men who have advanced the strongest claims about the effects of women’s empowerment on prospects for world peace. Francis Fukuyama’s 1998 Foreign Affairs article, “Women and the Evolution of World Politics,” begins with detailing murderous male chimp behavior and proceeds to argue that a world governed by females would be more peaceful because men are the biologically violent gender.

Fukuyama’s critics – including, Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollit, and Jane Jaquette – countered that Fukuyama gave
“insufficient weight to the dynamics of the nation-state system…Wars start not in biology… but in realpolitik.” (Jaquette)
British “transhumanist philosopher” and author of The Hedonistic Imperative, David Pearce, has recently (2011) picked up Fukuyama’s thesis:
“The genetic source of most human predatory behavior has been identified: the Y chromosome… For evolutionary reasons, almost all wars are started and waged by men. Enacting legislation that allowed only women to stand for national public office would probably save hundreds of millions of lives this century—possibly more…” (Pearce)
I suspect that Jaquette is right that modern war has more to do with the dynamics of the nation-state system than Fukuyama or Pearce acknowledge. Still, removing the male aggression, plausibly, would have some effect. Even better than female-only national governments, however, might be this radical notion: equality. Conditions of equally-shared power tend to produce changes in the men, moving them away from those aggressive Y-chromosome correlates that more often come to the fore in all-male company. Even if we accept the simplistic equations of women with peacefulness and men with aggression, wouldn’t it be better to bring out the peaceful side of men rather than remove all of them from office, leaving them to stew (and get into fights)?

Other Issues

Poverty. Forty percent of female-headed households in this country fall below the poverty line. Perhaps eradicating the root assumptions that produce sexism would also change assumptions that our economy has to have winners and losers, that competing for dominance is good and necessary and that cooperation so that we can all live decently is just an idea for wimps.

Environment. Are the ecofeminists correct that a greater genuine and authentic honoring of feminine nurturing – not just a placating card and some flowers on Mother’s Day – would shift all our attitudes toward a nurturance of the earth? Do the values that go with women’s empowerment represent the best hope for addressing environmental degradation and adopting sustainable lifestyles planet-wide?

Race and class issues. The Other is often out of our sight – hidden off in a factory or a field or a side of town that we rarely visit. When it comes to the Other gender, however, few of us are so segregated. For many of us, indeed, the Other is right there sharing our living quarters and bedroom. Maybe true justice begins at home, and if everybody could work out in their personal lives a way to recognize kinship while also embracing and celebrating difference, then maybe we could better do that outside our homes as well and end injustice based on race or class.

There’s a case there to be made for feminism as not just a commitment to end isolated injustices based on gender. It’s a way of seeing every major social issue as flowing from the same underlying psychosocial dynamics that also produce those gender injustices. It’s a strategy for working toward a world in which relationships of equality and respect replace relations of dominance and exploitation – a strategy that sees addressing gender issues as the first, best place to learn how to relate with genuine equality and respect.

In a world successfully cultivating such relationship capacity, perhaps war, poverty, and all forms of discrimination would be on the way out, and living sustainably, aware and appreciative of our bondedness to the earth, would be rapidly spreading.


On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the view that if you want to work to end racism or poverty, then work directly to end racism or poverty. It would be, after all, a feminist point to distrust hierarchies of issues that place some at the center or the top and other issues at the periphery or bottom.

There’s no doubt that social issues do interlink. Perhaps they do so in a centerless web rather than all flowing outward from the roots of our gender attitudes.

I don’t suppose there is any grand unified theory. My life, so far, with feminism continues to be a mish-mash of not entirely coherent yearnings – rather like the stacks of magazines on my parents’ coffee table.

For all that, it’s a story, I hope, of slowly learning how to be, moment by moment, on the side of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. On the side of the forces that create and uphold life. On the side of the ongoing dance for peace and justice.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "Feminist Theology"
Previous: Part 4: "Lynchpin to World Peace"
Beginning: Part 1: "I Was a Teenage Feminist"


Lynchpin to World Peace

Our Unitarian Universalist approach to religion is a feminist theology in this most basic way: it avoids any closed canon. As James Luther Adams said:
“Liberal religion depends first upon the principle that revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.”
We say religion isn’t about what we believe – and therefore it is not about the words that we might feel like asserting. Religion is about experience, and about how we live, and about relationship. In this way, Unitarian Universalist theology is feminist theology. Perhaps, then, my embrace of the label “Unitarian Universalist” has, over the years, slowly made it seem less urgent for me to also proclaim myself “feminist.” I’m as feminist as ever, even if I don’t say so as often – because, for me, saying I’m Unitarian Universalist is saying I’m feminist – in matters of theology, at least.

Besides matters of pure theology, there are matters of social strategy. We want, ultimately, a world of peace, prosperity, and justice. How do we get there? What are the changes which not only are requirements of justice in their own right, but will also be particularly instrumental toward realizing a world of peace overall? Pay equity for women, gender balance in positions of power, reducing domestic battering of girlfriends and wives, and ensuring reproductive choice are, it seems to me, good candidates. If women were liberated from all that holds them back – which would mean men were liberated from the prejudices and assumptions into which men tend to fall when only men hold the positions of public power – would our prospects for peace and justice be better? Yes.

The “Because I Am a Girl” website reports that:
“70% of the one billion people living in extreme poverty are women and girls. Girls are 3x more likely to be malnourished than boys. Globally, 66 million girls do not attend primary or secondary school. Girls and women in the world's poorest countries are the most vulnerable members of society, denied the same rights and opportunities as their brothers."
Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, observed,
"research is also clear that when girls reach their full potential, through improved status, better health care, and education, it is the most effective development tool for society as a whole. As a country's primary enrolment rate for girls increases, so too does its gross domestic product per capita."
“An extra year of school for girls increases their lifetime income by 15%. Children of women who have completed primary school are less likely to die before age 5 than children of mothers with no schooling. Women invest more of their income in their families than men do….When girls are educated, healthy and informed, they pull themselves, their children and their communities out of poverty. The most vulnerable are potentially the most powerful.” (becauseiamagirl.ca)
In developed countries like the US, the more progress we make toward equality, the more unjustified and unnatural the gender inequalities in the rest of the world will seem. Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined notes that empowerment of women correlates powerfully with reductions in violence in a society. This doesn’t tell us whether women’s empowerment caused violence to decline, or the violence decline caused (created the conditions that allowed) women’s empowerment. Plausibly, each contributes to the other, in a virtuous cycle. Whatever the causal details may be, working for either (reduced violence or women's empowerment) would seem to go hand-in-hand with working for the other.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 5: "Feminism and the Roots of All Problems"
Previous: Part 3: "Slaying the 'Master Narrative' Dragon"
Beginning: Part 1: "I Was a Teenage Feminist"


Slaying the "Master Narrative" Dragon

The same words that help and empower might also disempower. Feminist theologians have, in fact, made it a key point that words do fail us. The Western religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are religions “of the book.” That is, they are based on particular texts. In these traditions, authority derives from certain words, and ultimately from two underlying ideas:
  • There is a fixed canon – that certain texts have the authority of scripture, and all others are permanently excluded.
  • There is – though we fallible humans may disagree about what it is – one definitive and correct interpretation of these authoritative texts.
A crucial point of feminist theology has been that the very expectation that words will stay put in their meaning, and that words won’t fail us, has been a problem for us. Authority must be de-centered, they say. No finite text can save us.

Liberation of both women and men depends upon opening up creative possibilities of meaning. We must make the sources of authority open ended. Bring in new texts from other world traditions. Let us write new stories. Let us make new interpretations of the old ones. Let the language which speaks to us, which has power for us, which is our scripture, be infinite and not closed off.

The same words that liberate can also oppress. What matters is context. What matters is intent and purpose. There is no grand narrative that will always give everyone their due. Any story becomes oppressive if it becomes fixed, canonical.

Consider the 2001 children’s story, Petronella, by Jay Williams. Here’s a synopsis:
Princess Petronella, unwilling to wait around for some Prince to come for her, decided to go out and find her own. Deep in the woods she came upon an old man who told her about the house of Albion the Enchantress – and about a golden ring that could break Albion’s enchantments. Petronella proceeded to Albion’s house, where she saw a young man sitting in a lawn chair on the front lawn who identified himself as Prince Ferdinand of Firebrand. Petronella had found a Prince, and found him self-absorbed and unimpressive. When Enchantress Albion appeared, Petronella told her, “I’ve come to see if you have any work for me.” Albion set Petronella to work taking care of a kennel of dogs, after which, Petronella asked for, and received, payment of a golden ring. The next day Petronella pulled Ferdinand from his room, and the two made their escape on horseback. Soon they heard Albion in pursuit behind. Petronella threw the golden ring to the ground, and when Albion stepped over it, the ring became a trap that bound her tightly. Petronella offered to release Albion if she promised to let the prince go free. Albion replied that Ferdinand was never a captive. “I am glad to be rid of him! He came to visit for a week and never left.” “Then why were you chasing us?” asked Petronella. “I just wanted to get to know you better,” said Albion. In the end, Petronella and Albion leave Ferdinand to fend for himself, ride off together into the sun rise, and live happily ever after.
The twist on the traditional fairy tale is delightful. Free women get to do things their own way. The man gets his comeuppance -- and he is transformed all the way from boorish oaf to hapless irrelevance. If we had only that sort of story, then the message for men is that their role is to start off obnoxious and end up pointless. But, of course, we don’t have only that sort of story. Instead, we have a vast plurality of stories breaking down each others’ stereotypes.

The point is not to replace one “master narrative” with another, but to encourage the proliferation of diverse stories undermining the possibility of any “master narrative.”

Any canonized set of words will always fail us, so feminist theologians remind us to look beyond the words to the context. Any set of words will fail us, so feminists remind us to resist any closed canon. In the context of a culture in which our girls and women, much more commonly than our boys and men, are seen as derivative and dependent, then a story of a princess who is not dependent on a man is a useful corrective. The point isn’t meant to be universalized, for to universalize any story would be to enshrine its stereotypes. It’s not a universal story: instead, it’s a story offered to us where we are now. And by insisting that our authorities be open-ended, that there is always room for more stories, we allow the intrinsic lopsidedness of any given story to be counterbalanced by subsequent stories.

There’s no way to tell a nonlopsided story. Every story has its situated, particular point of view and cannot affect an objective, god’s-eye viewpoint. The pretense of objectivity has been oppressive. What we can do is keep telling more stories, compensating the limited perspective of one with diverse other, albeit also in their own way limited, perspectives. The instant that process stops, the instant we think we have a finite scripture, in that moment we give up on further liberation.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 4: "Lynchpin to World Peace"
Previous: Part 2: "Whither Feminism?"
Beginning: Part 1: "I Was a Teenage Feminist"


Whither Feminism?

Not long ago, I was in a group of 40 or so adults, about half women and half men. Our group facilitator asked how many of the men identified themselves as feminists. I raised my hand. It occurred to me afterward that although I was willing to raise my hand as a feminist when asked, I had fallen out of the habit of calling myself a feminist out-loud when not asked. It doesn't seem as central to my identity as it once did.

The issues are still there, of course. We still haven’t passed an equal rights amendment. Discrimination and pay inequity and sexual harassment in the workplace are still going on.

The ranks of the most powerful – the CEOs and our Congressional representatives – continue to be overwhelmingly male. As of 2013, women hold 97 of the 535 seats in the US Congress. That’s 18.1 percent. It’s an incremental improvement over the last congress (16.6 percent), and certainly a very big difference from 1972 (2.8 percent). In state legislatures, women are up to 24 percent. Progress, yes, but still a long way from 50-50. Only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 companies are headed by women.

Rights to reproductive choice are under assault and rolling back. As the Time magazine cover last month noted:
“Forty years ago, abortion-rights activists won an epic victory with Roe v. Wade. They’ve been losing ever since.” (2013 Jan 14)
Violence against women continues: two to four million women are battered by intimates every year in this country. Every day, four times a day, 1,400 times a year, a woman dies in this country as a result of domestic violence. It’s still more the rule than the exception that girls in our culture grow up learning to measure their worth from their sexual attractiveness to males – while boys grow up learning to measure their worth from what they do.

Yet I find, looking at myself, that the label “feminist” has gradually, gradually come to seem less important. It is one more word, and getting a handle on what justice and liberation looks like for women (and men) is hard to lay out with words. It seems less clear than it did 20 or 40 years ago what this label ‘feminist’ means. Words fail us. So many claims and practices have gone under the name of feminism, that it is hard to say just what it is all about.

Consider that in that same year of Ms. Magazine’s inauguration, 1972, Pope Paul VI said that “true women’s liberation” does not lie in
“formalistic or materialistic equality with the other sex, but in the recognition of that specific thing in the feminine personality – the vocation of a woman to become a mother.”
“Boo, hiss to the Pope,” my 13-year-old self said. Feminism as I understood it in the 70s was indeed precisely about formalistic and materialistic equality and the obliteration of the idea that there was any such “specific thing in the feminine personality” or a “vocation of a woman to become a mother.”

Then, in the 80s and 90s, I began noticing women writers who sought to value the feminine by recognizing a special connection to creation through motherhood – through an innate psychology that comes with the capacity for pregnancy and childbirth, even if they aren’t actual mothers. The ecofeminists, for instance, connected patriarchy with environmental degradation, and called upon a woman-centered view, because of its connection to nurturing and motherhood, to save the planet.

I was confused. I so wanted to be on the side of assertive and articulate women, but I was confused. What exactly was the difference between what these feminists were now saying and what the deplorable Pope was saying back in ’72? Aren’t they both calling for recognition of the special qualities of the feminine personality, especially mothering?

The words fail us – because the same words that the Pope was using to undermine women’s empowerment were being used by these feminists to empower women. Words that glorify the feminine might be nostalgic for imposed limitations, hearkening back to times when women were kept in the background, out of positions of leadership. (I'm recalling Susan Brownmiller's 1984 book, Femininity, in which she defined "femininity" as "a nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations.") Or those words might be part of making the case that women’s experience, and even women's biology, do offer a grounding for a unique wisdom -- a wisdom that is needed not just within a circumscribed role for women, but in the public sphere.

Or, as many wives have been saying to many husbands – probably for centuries: “It’s not what you said, but how you said it.” And this has -- probably for centuries -- baffled husbands who can't quite grasp that the same words that disempower might, in a different context with a different tone, empower.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 3: "Slaying the 'Master Narrative' Dragon"
Previous: Part 1: "I Was a Teenage Feminist"


I Was a Teenage Feminist

The living tradition Unitarian Universalists share draws on many sources, including:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.
I was 13-years-old once, and there was for me no more transcendent mystery or wonder than females. Frankly, males were pretty much a mystery, too, for that matter: in fact, two mysteries: I was a mystery to myself, and other males were a completely different mystery. These mysteries, however, lacked the transcendence of the wholly holy other: girls and women.

It was 1972, the year I was 13, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine hit the scene. My mother was a charter subscriber, and the issues arrived monthly, and there they were, lying on the living room coffee table, along with the Time magazine, and Atlantic, and Scientific American, and . . . Playboy, which, interestingly, also arrived in our mailbox with my mother’s name on the address sticker on the plain brown wrapper. To the best of my ability to tell, she liked the articles.

That year, 1972, my parents gave me a booklet about how reproduction works, and then left me alone to wrestle with the transcending mystery and wonder – with various clues (and red herrings) on constant display on the living room coffee table. Moved as I was to “an openness to the forces that create...life,” I was an regular reader of both Ms. and Playboy. There was indeed a wealth of material on that coffee table, and it wasn’t all consistent. Still, by the time I was 15, I was fairly well-informed about women, I suppose, for my age.

Of course, I hadn’t the foggiest notion how to actually talk to one. Such expertise as I had was purely theoretical.

I have identified myself as feminist ever since I was 13. I wore often my “Yes ERA” t-shirt – a gift from my mother -- until, after some years, it fell apart (along with the amendment it supported, alas). I was raised to believe in justice and equality – that really is a key part of the story. I imbibed and took to heart the views of writers like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Mary Daly. By the time I was in college, I was reading their books, not just their pieces in Ms.

All those words.

At the same time, I was a teenage boy with a teenage boy’s hormones, and as I reflect back I think also a part of the story was a desperate hope that if I could only sufficiently display that I was on women’s side, then one of them might be willing to be on my side. My quest was for a grand unified theory that would make sense of my own burgeoning sexuality while also aligning me with high ideals of justice. What I had was rather a mish-mash of incoherent yearnings, really. (I identified a lot with Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote. Think, "impossible dream.")

My teen-age feminism set the stage for my young adult feminism. On past age 30, when I was in graduate school and my own kids were in elementary school, I was not only a checkbook supporter of the National Organization for Women, but an active member of the local University of Virginia chapter, going to meetings and marches in between my classes and studies. Then, as an assistant professor of philosophy at Fisk University, I chaired the task force that designed and brought to implementation that University’s first women’s studies program. Feminism has been a large and meaningful part of my life. It's been a winding and unfolding journey, and what it means for me, and us, I'll begin to explore in the next Lake Chalice.

* * *
This is part 1 of 5 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 2: "Whither Feminism?"


Lobotomy Alternative

No, lobotomies for everyone is not a good idea. Those of us who have functional frontal lobes would rather not lose those capacities. We like the job that the frontal lobe does. It's just that sometimes it works overtime, collects time-and-a-half, and busts our payroll. We need the frontal lobe to do its job, and we also need it to take breaks and vacations so that we can have some time to get out of living in the future and spend some time living right here, right now.

How do we do that? Some suggestions:
  1. Take a break from serving an imaginary person, your future self, and do something nice for a concrete real other person in the present.
  2. As mentioned: notice when you like something.
  3. Laugh, especially with family and close friends. It builds the bonds of connectedness that are so crucial to happiness.
  4. Take up a meditation practice. With a posture that is erect – alert yet relaxed – simply bring attention to the sensations of breathing in and breathing out. Reclaim 15 minutes a day from the tyranny of the frontal lobes' incessant planning.
For some people the only time they aren't in the grip of the frontal lobe is when they're dwelling in memories. Take a few minutes to cultivate being right here, right now. Dwell in the present: neither the past memories nor the future plans.

We don't want stop the frontal lobe from doing its job, but we do want to be able to put that job in context. We need not be wholly consumed by our imagined future. It’s possible to have our plans without being so wrapped up in them that we have no identity apart from them. That is: we can have our plans without our plans having us. Plans, after all, even the best-laid plans of mice and men, do go oft astray.

Find the stillness within which the busy-ness of our mind takes place -- the context of silence surrounding the mind's chatter. The only way to find that stillness is take some time to be still: attention on nothing but the breath: for the breath is right now. It's not re-living old memories; it's not all wrapped up in planning. It's now. For a second thing, the breath is the place where you and not-you are constantly changing places. It's the place where interconnection is direct, immediate, and vivid – if we're paying attention to it.

By taking a break each day from being dominated by, consumed by, and identified with the frontal lobe's fabrications, when you come back, and the planning function resumes, you are better able to hold your own planning activity within a mindful awareness.
“Happiness isn't just the limited positive states we strive for, but rather there is a larger openness that includes sorrow and joy. That's true happiness.” (Gaylon Ferguson, Buddhadharma 2008 Spring, 36)
Through the development of present-moment-mindfulness, suffering doesn't disappear from our life. Rather, it disappears into our life.
“When we live our life as a whole, there is no longer an aspect that gets singled out as 'suffering.'” (Barry Magid, Buddhadharma, 2008 Spring, 37)
Life does have loveliness to sell. Are you buying?

* * *
This is part 6 of 6 of "Happy."
Previous: Part 5: "Curse of the Frontal Lobe"
Beginning: Part 1: "Having Everything You Want"


Curse of the Frontal Lobe

People who have received injuries to their frontal lobes can appear and act indistinguishably normal. They can engage in pleasant conversation with you about the weather, or the drapes. They can reminisce with you about the great play at the end of the game last night. They express likes and dislikes, seem to have a coherent personality, they're socially amiable, and can solve logic problems. But ask them what they'll be doing tomorrow, and they simply cannot process the question. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert tells the story of Patient NN:
“NN suffered a closed head injury in an automobile accident in 1981, when he was thirty years old. Tests revealed that he had sustained extensive damage to his frontal lobe. A psychologist interviewed NN a few years after the accident and recorded this conversation:
Psychologist: What will you be doing tomorrow?
NN: I don't know.
Psychologist: Do you remember the question?
NN: About what I'll be doing tomorrow?
Psychologist: Yes, would you describe your state of mind when you try to think about it?
NN: Blank, I guess. It's like being asleep; like being in a room with nothing there; like swimming in the middle of a lake. There's nothing to hold you up or do anything with.
  For NN, tomorrow will always be an empty room, and when he attempts to envision later, he will always feel as the rest of us do when we try to imagine nonexistence or infinity.” (Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, 14-15.)
With our frontal lobes we play out various future hypothetical scenarios, and through connections to the limbic system, where emotion happens, those scenarios compel attention. The frontal lobes, in other words, not only create imagined futures but also generate anxiety about our futures. This explains why the frontal lobotomy – that is, the destruction of some part of the frontal lobe -- “became a standard treatment for cases of anxiety and depression that resisted other forms of therapy.” Lobotomized patients were indeed calmer and less depressed. They also “performed well on standard intelligence tests, memory tests, and the like.” Yet, as doctors began to notice, these patients “showed severe impairments on any test – even the very simplest test – that involved planning. . . . They found it practically impossible to say what they would do later that afternoon” (Gilbert 13).

So here we are -- we nonlobotomized humans -- with this amazing capacity to envision our futures with a level of scope and detail far beyond what any other animal can do – and at the same time so seized by our own imagined future scenarios that we spend the better part of our waking hours slavishly in the service of future selves who can never repay us and will scarcely acknowledge that we gave them the best years of our lives.

Because of this capacity to think about the future, humans could invent agriculture, plan cities, build civilization so that we can inhabit this glorious world of fax machines, traffic jams, ipods, strip malls, garage-door openers, cable TV, and spam (both the canned meat and e-mail versions). Because of these hugely enlarged frontal lobes, our lives are, as John Lennon said, what happen to us while we're busy making other plans.

Living in the future, working on some scenario of a bigger house or a trip to Paris, we miss the joy of our present moments. Sometimes we miss chances to have fun with our kids. What's the answer? Lobotomies for everyone? There must be a better way.

* * *
This is part 5 of 6 of "Happy."
Next: Part 6: "Lobotomy Alternative"
Previous: Part 4: "Macaroons or a Frontal Lobe?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Having Everything You Want"


Reality vs. "Should Be"

The Mindfulness habit begins by being conscious of when you’re having fun – when you’re enjoying something. As like as not, it’ll be some little thing. The painter, Vincent Van Gogh describes getting up from bed at night after a snowstorm, and looking out at the landscape:
“Never, never has nature made such a moving and touching impression on me.”
Moments of grace like that happen when we’re open to receive them. The beauty of nature is usually a good bet. Every season has its aesthetic; springtime is, for most of us, particularly reliable for offering its grace.
“Every happy living thing revels in the cheerful spring.” (Henry Purcell)
If the first step is telling ourselves that we like what we’re experiencing, the next step is to stop telling ourselves so much about what we don’t like. It’s the all-too-common trap: ignoring our blessings, while weaving a richly detailed story of all the wrongs we unfairly endure.
“Before I woke up to reality, I had a symbol for all my frustration: my children’s socks. Every morning they’d be on the floor, and every morning I’d think, ‘My children should pick up their socks.’ It was my religion. You could say my world was accelerating out of control – because in my mind, there were socks everywhere. And I’d be filled with rage and depression because I believed these socks didn’t belong on the floor, even though, morning after morning, that’s where they were. I believed it was my children’s job to pick them up, even though, morning after morning, they didn’t.” (Byron Katie)
Live in reality, says Katie, instead of in our “should be’s.”
“After 10 years of deep depression and despair, I came to see that my suffering wasn’t a result of not having control; it was a result of arguing with reality. . . . Until you can love what is – everything, including the apparent violence and craziness – you’re separate from the world, and you’ll see it as dangerous and frightening.” (Byron Katie: click here)
Loving what is – total acceptance of reality exactly as it is – does not mean that we do not work for social justice. It does mean that we simply let go of our frustrations as we go about that work.

What is yours to do? First, what are your gifts – your talents, your passions, your hunger? Second, what are the world’s greatest needs? Third, where is the balance point between those two – where do your gifts meet the world’s needs? Those are the questions for identifying what is yours to do, and if you don’t know, then discernment work on those questions is called for, and even if you do know, discernment work is ongoing.

The Bhagavad Gita teaches: You have the right to your work; you do not have the right to fruits of that work. In other words, what is yours to do, you offer up to the world. The world will then make of it what it will: that’s out of your hands. You have come to your calling, the works of your life, in part, through an estimation of likelihood of success. Yes, calculate your best chance of success. Then roll that die and accept what comes.

Maybe your work becomes the last straw producing a cascading collapse, one after the other, of every system of oppression and injustice by which humans hurt each other, other animals, and the earth. Maybe you save the world.

Or: maybe your work makes no difference at all.

Or: maybe your work triggers a backlash that makes things worse.

Who knows? You do what is yours to do, and beyond reviewing what really is yours to be doing next, let go of attachment to results.
“The point of washing the dishes,is not to get them clean. The point of washing the dishes is to wash the dishes.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Just do. No frustrations about outcomes; no “arguing with reality.”

Our hearts cannot but turn over to grace all that they are and have. Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it.

* * *
This is part 3 of 6 of "Happy."
Next: Part 4: "Macaroons or a Frontal Lobe?"
Previous: Part 2: "Notice What You Like"
Beginning: Part 1: "Having Everything You Want"


Notice What You Like

If Thomas Jefferson was right that “pursuit of happiness” is an unalienable right, then what are we to do with that right? Pursuing happiness for its own sake is generally counterproductive. Happiness eludes us when we aim at it, and it often sneaks up on us with big, warm hug when we’re paying attention to something else.

Focusing on what I want is a path of unhappiness. Do I want a bigger house, fancier gadgets? Do I want solar panels for my roof, and an all-electric car? Do I want the nation’s elected leaders populated with people who think like I do? Whatever I want, that’s where the source of my suffering will be. That’s even true if the focus of my desire is “happiness.”

Fortunately, intentionally cultivating an openness to life’s joy is not the same thing as a grasping desire for something called happiness. We can undertake to orient ourselves toward happiness without thinking of it as a thing that we want. The reigning metaphor in the one case is opening to what’s there – and in the other case, it’s acquiring something we don’t have.

Attention to opening to what’s there makes a difference. For example, one week my internet service provider was down. I couldn’t get my e-mail at home. This was very irritating. (I mentioned to a member of my congregation I was annoyed at my provider. He raised an eyebrow and said, “A minister annoyed at his provider.”)

Then the next week the e-mail went down again, but I was a lot less irritated. Why? It turns out that in the meantime I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama about being happy. Several hours of reading about it has oriented my neural pathways toward happiness – which is to say, away from “I want, I want, I want.”

And it is, just as Voltaire found it to be, good for my health. ("I've decided to be happy because it is good for my health." -Voltaire)

A day later, though, unless I specifically take a moment, and a deep breath and intentionally tell myself to remember what the Dalai Lama was saying, I’m again prone to being annoyed with my provider. The demands of the universe can be so unreasonable!

Apparently, we aren’t really designed to be happy. The mildly unhappy among our hunter-gatherer ancestors had a better chance of surviving and reproducing. They needed to be focused on dangers and problems. We have inherited that tendency. The trick is to find ways to override the circuitry of anxiety and stress when that circuitry doesn’t happen to be functional for us.

The growing legions of spiritual advisors who books fill bookstore shelves these days speak often of “mindfulness.” They mean paying attention to everything that’s going on in you and around you while it’s happening. Start by noticing what you like. Be more present to what you’re enjoying while you’re enjoying it.
“You can spend an evening with friends and only realize once you get home that you had a good time.” (Cristophe Andre, click here)
You can eat a pizza, not noticing what a great pizza it is. Things you enjoy are the places to look first if you’re having a hard time finding your happiness. Try pausing to say to yourself, “This is a nice moment. I’m having a good time. Right now, I’m happy.”

Happiness really is a warm puppy – when you bring awareness to the enjoyment. Those of you who are parents of children: next time you hug your kid, you can bring yourself to a fuller level of presence to that moment by noting to yourself, “I really like this.” Of course you do. Are you noticing? The Mindfulness habit begins by being conscious of when you’re having fun – when you’re enjoying something.

* * *
This is part 2 of 6 of "Happy."
Next: Part 3: "Reality vs. 'Should Be'"
Previous: Part 1: "Having Everything You Want"


Having Everything You Want

Once upon a time, back in the days when I was a philosophy professor, one day one of my students came to see me. I had discerned from our prior contacts that he was a young man who wanted the finer things in life: he wanted a big house, fast car, tailored clothes -- the trappings of status and comfort. He came to me because he was concerned about how he would get these things. He wasn’t quite seeing how being a philosophy major, as he was, squared with his material ambitions.

I said to him, “I know a way that you can have everything you want.”

“How?” he wanted to know. He was looking straight at me, fully focused on my every nuance. I don't think he ever gave me that level of attention in class – but right at that moment he was ready to believe philosophers really had discovered the arcane secret guaranteed to bring success and wealth – and that he was about to receive this secret. The dues he had put in – all the hours reading Plato and Descartes – well, the minutes, anyway -- were about to yield their ultimate reward.

“The way to have everything you want,” I said, “Is to want only what you have.”

He didn’t buy it. The expression on face indicated that he was, in fact, abjectly disappointed with my answer. He looked as though he thought he'd fallen for some stupid trick, and couldn't decide if he was more disgusted at me for pulling this dumb hoax on him, or at himself for falling into it.

It's no trick, no hoax. It's a simple truth. To have all you want, want what you have.

Two Strategies

There are two ways to arrive at a state of affairs in which what you have and what you want match. One way is to make a list of all the things that you want, and then set about doing whatever it takes to acquire everything on that list. Work on bringing the “have” bar up until it meets the “want” bar. The other way for “want” and “have” to match is lower the “want” bar until it meets the “have” bar.

Which strategy will work best?

The first strategy is doomed to failure. You'll never have enough. Long before you ever acquire every item on your list, you have added more things to your list. The “want” bar will always keep rising, staying ahead of the “have” bar. The second strategy, at first, may not look so hot either. How does one decide not to want stuff? Even if one has come to believe that wanting only what one has, letting go of desires for more, does conduce to happiness, can one simply decide to stop wanting?

Voltaire once wrote,
“I’ve decided to be happy because it is good for my health.”
What sort of “decision” is this? And if it’s just a matter of deciding, why hasn’t everyone decided to be happy?

The instant that it takes to say, “I now hereby decide to be happy” probably isn’t enough. It takes a little bit longer to psyche oneself into a good mood -- and even then, the effects tend to fade away in a few hours, even under good conditions. What's a body to do? If Thomas Jefferson was right that "pursuit of happiness" is an unalienable right, then what exercise of that right is worthwhile?

* * *
This is part 1 of 6 of "Happy."
Next: Part 2: "Notice What You Like"


Conflict is a Good Thing

Restoration begins with the simplicity, elegance, and wholeness of a circle. One person speaks from the heart and everyone else listens – listens attentively. The wonderful gift of attention signals caring. A context of caring begins to transform people. Participants speak of what they felt, what they were looking for at the time they chose to act, and what they're ready to commit to doing.

Dominic Barter points out that the very term “conflict resolution” often functions to encourage us in wishing the conflict would just go away: “resolve it, get it over with, get it out of my consciousness.” Conflict is a good thing. It's true that sometimes conflicts get started by actions we wouldn't judge "good." Even so, the actions are always products of a system of relationships. Relationships inflict wounds, and they also are ultimately our only chance of healing. Having conflicts, engaging conflicts, is the way that we attend to building and maintaining relationships and community. Show me a community without conflict and I will show you a group of people so detached and disengaged as to not be worthy of the name community.

One of the points that Dominic Barter stresses about Restorative Circles is that the community must understand and approve – buy in to the process for how to have conflicts. That understanding needs to be in place. It doesn’t work so well if a conflict is already erupting and then someone says, “I’ve heard about this thing called Restorative Circles; let’s try it,” yet no one else knows what it is. In that case, the learning of the process, how to engage it, gets distorted by the emotions that are already swirling around the particular conflict.

If the whole community understands and has accepted Restorative Circles, then the reverse happens: the way people initially process the conflict in their own hearts and minds is shaped by knowing in advance how that conflict will be engaged.

The restorative justice movement has its roots in clearly illegal harms that one person may inflict on another – murder, battery, property damage. Yet we need restoration, too, in cases where, evidently, no law has been broken. We need restorative processes whenever there is conflict. So some schools, churches, workplaces are beginning to adopt restorative circle practice. A number of Unitarian Universalist Fellowships have used Dominic Barter's Restorative Circle process, and others have begun to explore that possibility.

If it’s going to work for any community, its members will need to know the details and be trained in a method for engaging conflicts before they arise – a method that encourages rather than suppresses conflict, and thereby allows for healing together. Absent such a method, the only choice is between nursing ones wounds silently to onself, or lashing out in a way that only wounds others in turn.
“Sacred One, teach us love, compassion, and honor. That we may heal the earth and heal each other” (Ojibway prayer).
* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "Restorative Justice"
Previous: Part 4: "Making Healing Part of Justice"
Beginning: Part 1: "Crime and Punishment"


Making Healing Part of Justice

In a Restorative Circle, in which authors, receivers, and community are brought together, the first stage is for everyone to speak what they want to say and receive confirmation that they have been heard. The second stage, then, is identifying good reasons why the horrible thing happened. What were “the underlying values that people were attempting to take care of when they said those painful words, when they did those painful things.” As Dominic Barter says,
“When we listen not just to words, but to meaning, when we start to connect on that level of meaning, we suddenly discover that actually we have the same fundamental values.”
The third stage is for each person to articulate what they are now prepared to do next.

Our current justice system pretends that it might change behavior by threat of repeated punishment. That pretense has been growing more and more obviously false. Restorative justice aims to change behavior through healing.

Our current justice system pretends that individual behavior is primarily determined by rational calculation to avoid even small probabilities of long-term punishment. That pretense entails ignoring a fundamental fact: the people most likely to cause harm are those who have been harmed themselves. The abused become abusers. Restorative justice makes room for greater complexity. It recognizes that all people are built to want safety, status, acceptance, security, self-respect, and that their environment powerfully shapes what strategies are available to them to get these things. Gang membership, for instance, is a strategy for safety, acceptance, and status, and when that is the best available strategy, then that strategy is going to be taken. Authors need to be in relations of accountability for their actions – we are responsible for what we do. Communities are also responsible for shaping the context that makes certain strategies appear – or be – the best bet.

Our current justice system makes crime and punishment the province of specialists. We delegate the responsibility to the police, to prosecutors, to judges and juries. We expect the system to make the danger disappear, make offenders disappear, keep them out of sight. While current system is far superior to a system of personal vendettas, the current system is also far inferior to a system providing peaceful ways to be involved and connected with a process of healing.

A retributive justice system amounts to the state executing revenge on our behalf. It’s still got vengeance – retribution – at the core. The best possible outcome in our current system is that we get even. Restorative justice offers the possibility that we get well.

The work of Roca was brought to my attention by my colleague, Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs. He learned about it from Carolyn Boyes-Watson’s book, Peacemaking Circles & Urban Youth: Bringing Justice Home (Click here.) Roca is “a feisty community-based youth organization” that serves one of the “most broken and dangerous urban neighborhoods” in the United States. Roca’s mission is “to promote justice through creating opportunities for young people to become self-sufficient and live out of harm’s way.” The Roca staff began to employ a form of restorative justice called peacemaking circles. These circles echo the practices of social healing used by indigenous cultures since time before time. Restorative justice approaches such as Roca’s have begun to lower juvenile incarceration rates around the country.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "Restorative Justice"
Next: Part 5: "Conflict is a Good Thing"
Previous: Part 3: "Authors and Receivers"
Beginning: Part 1: "Crime and Punishment"