On Being Animal (revised)

Compelling Question

Here are two questions:
Question 1: What does it mean to be human?
Question 2: What does it mean to be animal?
Question 1 is clearly a question about us -- who we are, what kind of being. Question 2 might or might not be about you and me. If we are not used to thinking of ourselves as animals, our first impression of Question 2 might be that it is equivalent to "What does it mean to be some other (than human) animal?" Even if we understand that both questions are asking about us, that both are seeking self-understanding by way of understanding the characteristics and qualities of a category of which we are a member, Question 1 might seem compelling while Question 2 seemed trivial. A generation ago, that's how it seemed to me: the first question compelling, urgent even, and the second question a bit silly.

Questions that seize our interests and imaginations may grow less compelling over time while other questions grow more so. This happens in the history of thought through the centuries, as well as in individual lives. A professor I once had for a history of philosophy class put it to us this way on the last day of class (as best as memory serves): “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 from getting over them.”

Question 1 has attracted a lot of attention over the centuries. As a philosophy major and graduate student in the 1970s and 80s, I remember the question made me feel in the presence of something vital and important. The question seemed to matter because whatever it was that was unique to our species would therefore be a precious and sacred thing, something to cultivate. If reason is what makes us human, then we ought to try hard to be rational in all things. If use of ethical principles is the defining feature, then those principles take on grand significance. Or if humor and laughter make us human, then it behooves us to laugh. Presumably, whatever is uniquely human is something of which we humans should want to have more, or should, at least, vigilantly guard our store – lest some horrible result occur, called “forfeiting one’s humanity,” or “becoming inhuman.”

“What does it mean to be human?” inspired thinkers and activists to valuable work. As recently as 2001, an anthology of essays appeared titled, What Does It Mean To Be Human? Contributors, including the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa, Vaclav Havel, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Arias, and about 90 others, reflect, says the publisher’s description, "on our shared human condition and attempt to define a core set of human values in our rapidly changing society." Quite a grand project! While many of the short essays are insightful and beautiful, the announced project, a mere decade later, rings overreaching and dated. The titular question of the book may be one that we are beginning to get over. It’s too early to tell, yet possibly this anthology was a last hurrah for a way of thinking that was already on its way out, the contributors almost all over age 60 at the time of publication.

While this notion of “our shared human condition” once evoked a powerful and promising appeal, a vision of solidarity and cooperation and common cause – and perhaps for many readers, still does – for me, the notion has lost its panache. Once I was enthralled by this really interesting “condition” -- both the burden and the glory of my species. I don't think it ever entered my mind then to wonder about such things as, say, “the equine condition” or “the raccoon condition.” Now I find “our shared human condition” no longer seems more salient than “our shared animal condition.” Nor am I alone. There is a cultural shift afoot -- if not at hand. The general change in attitudes toward animals was reflected in a column by Sarah van Gelder:
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, relationships with animals that are more like those of indigenous peoples -- seeing animals as fellow creatures living alongside us in complex interdependent ecosystems.
Question 1 is still around, but these days it invites quite a different sort of response. Today, an internet search for “What does it mean to be human?” turns up a predominance of material on human evolution – how our species’ traits and behaviors evolved over millions of years as our ancestors adapted to dramatic environmental change. Questions about how our evolution made us have been growing more compelling, while less compelling now is earnest investigation into “our shared human condition” aiming to articulate core human values to be the foundation for universal justice and peace. Where once we sought to identify what separates us from other animals, now we seek ever more detailed accounts of what unites us -- the breadth and depth of what human and nonhuman animals share. 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.

The task of self-understanding before us since Socrates urged, “know thyself,” is to bring awareness and presence to all of what and who we are. We are now better situated to see that this means not merely attending to our human nature, but to our animal nature. To know ourselves, we must address Question 2.

Our Animal Nature

To get a sense of myself, to arrive at self-understanding, to feel my place and purpose in this universe, 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. This is not to deny that there are differences. 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 imagine, if at all, even more dimly. There are various differences between any two species. Quite a large part of what I am, however, lies in the connections and similarities I have with all mammals, with all warm-blooded animals, with all vertebrates.

I’m not going to truly know myself by picking out one or a few unusual skills. I know myself by grasping the inheritance I share with the gorilla, gazelle, goose, and 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.

I do have a thin neocortex layer on top of the older paleomammalian system (the amygdala and the rest of the limbic system of emotions) and even older reptilian system (brainstem and cerebellum), yet I remain largely driven by those brain systems that all mammals have – and even those that all vertebrates have. The cognitive processes of the neocortex govern me much less than the neocortex likes to believe. Indeed, perhaps the neocortex’s greatest glory, ironically, is that it has, over the many millennia since its emergence, developed the means to investigate itself and reveal its own relative insignificance.

Conscious Thinking Is Not In Charge

Millennia of assumed differences between humans and other animals have been crumbling under recent research. Roughly speaking, the assumption has been that nonhuman animals are basically machines, their behavior merely conditioned responses, while humans are more than that: free, capable of exercising intention and forming responses that transcend conditioning. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637), for instance, influentially declared that nonhuman animals were complex organic machines without the immaterial mind or soul that only humans have. Research has been steadily closing the gap. Studies have noticed, or elicited, elaborate and intentional behavior in various species. Other studies come at the gap from the other direction: revealing that humans are not nearly as intentional as we think we are.

The Libet Experiments. In 1983, Benjamin Libet and others at the University of California, San Francisco, published the striking results of their experiments. In the study, participants were asked to voluntarily flex their wrist at a time of their choosing. Libet found that the neural signals for motion preceded the conscious awareness of intention to move by 300 to 500 milliseconds. “Put simply, the brain prepared a movement before a subject consciously decided to move!” Conscious intentions to move aren’t what cause our movements. This begs the question: why do our brains bother to create for us this illusion of conscious intentional control? Janet Kwasniak suggests that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action.” She suggests that “this marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened. The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened,” the effects on my wiring are different. What we call “volition” is a perception of our own behavior rather than a generator of it. The illusion of intention (or, more precisely, the illusion that intentions precede and determine action), then, is a by-product of the systems that all animal brains have for learning from experience.

It remains an open question how many other species might also generate such an illusion as a by-product of learning. Whatever the answer to that question might be, we can no longer plausibly claim, “We humans are in control of ourselves while nonhumans are machinelike bundles of conditioned responses.” Either they are not machines, or we are too – and our vaunted human exceptionalism amounts, at most, to a unique capacity to be deluded.

The Gazzaniga Experiments. Psychologist Michael Gazzaniga flashed two different images at the same time into the subject’s visual field. One image was in the part of the field that could only be seen by the left visual cortex, and the other only by the right visual cortex. The right brain saw a picture of snow covering a house and car. The left brain, at the same instant, saw a picture of a chicken claw. Gazzaniga then asked the subjects what they saw. The left brain has the language centers, so the left brain can articulate what it saw. “I saw a chicken claw,” reported the subjects. So instead of asking for words, Gazzaniga then presented an array of pictures and asked subjects to point to what they saw. Subjects’ right hands (controlled by their left brains) pointed to the picture of the chicken claw that the left brain saw. At the same time, subjects’ left hands (controlled by their right brains) pointed to the picture of the snow-covered scene that the right brain saw.

Gazzaniga then asked each hand to point to a picture of something that goes with the picture seen. The left brain saw a chicken claw, so subjects' right hands pointed to a picture of a chicken. Chicken claw goes with chicken. The right brain saw a snow-covered house and car, so subjects' left hands pointed to a shovel. Finally, Gazzaniga asked his subjects, "why is your left hand pointing to a shovel?" Now we’re in the language realm where only the left brain can express itself. If left-brain knew the truth, it could say, "I have no idea why my left hand is pointing to a shovel. It must be something you showed my right brain." Instead, the left brain instantly made up a plausible story. The patient said, without any hesitation, "Oh, that’s easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed."

Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior. When Gazzaniga flashed the word "walk" to just the right hemisphere, many subjects stood and walked away. When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get a Coke," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

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, we now know.

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. 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.

Befriending Our Animality

We cannot dispel, once and for all, the illusions of control, and the rationalizing stories of ourselves that our brains concoct. Knowing about the ways we are fooled, and how our fundamental animal nature is at work, can help us begin to befriend our animality, our selves. 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. Human social systems eventually yielded our technological systems, and between the two, I often find myself sitting indoors in front of a computer for hours at a time. If I am in touch with all of myself, then I feel those other parts biding their time, quietly yearning for their element. David Abram writes of “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.” Mary Oliver tells us we find our truest place in and through the sounds – and sights and smell and feel – of animals and the wild:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert for a hundred miles repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves . . .
High in the clean blue air, the wild geese 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.
I do not disparage the fine things my neocortex can do, nor 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, and they are a part that causes 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.

At this point, there is a danger of merely recreating Cartesian dualism in naturalized form. That is, Descartes posited a dualism of immaterial mind and material body. For Descartes, the complex organic machine of the body determined most of human behavior and all of nonhuman behavior. The immaterial mind/soul unique to humans guided only a small part of what humans do, Descartes acknowledged, yet that immaterial mind was the crucial separator of humans from all other animals. When someone refers, as I did, to “the fine things” that a human neocortex, forebrain, and language centers do, they might be (mis)understood as having only “naturalized” Descartes – as replacing Descartes’ concept of a special immaterial mind with a concept of special material brain parts. The point that these brain parts are only a small part of what we are would then seem to parallel Descartes’ acknowledgment that the complex organic machine called “body” determines most of human behavior.

The understanding that will best facilitate befriending and coming into our animality goes beyond mere “naturalized Descartes.” The point, ultimately, is not only the point that our animality – the traits shared with other primates, other mammals, other vertebrates – is most of what we are. Rather, animality is all of what we are. After all, every species has a brain distinct, in some ways, from every other species. The distinct attributes of a human brain are as much animal attributes as the similarities we share with other species. The distinctions are matters of degree, not of kind – and the distinctions of degree are slight. Similar versions of the forebrain that imagines the future, the neocortex that cognizes, and Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas that comprehend language all exist in other species. The human versions are as animal as the nonhuman versions, and as animal as our bones and guts are.

Closer contact with, and awareness of, the animal in me -- "the soft animal of [my] body, lov[ing] what it loves" (Oliver) -- engenders 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." Through a positive feedback cycle, heightened self-awareness leads to greater respect for my fellow vertebrates, and greater respect for my fellow vertebrates heightens self-awareness.

Where will deepened awareness of our animality take us? There is an emerging theology of nature that seeks to honor wildness as sacred. An earlier time described the material world as fallen, sinful, or, at best, crass. Then the scientific view has encouraged seeing the world as mechanical and inert. The emerging eco-spirituality connects in wonder to the aliveness of the world. Connecting to our own animality – attending to, honoring, and loving what in us is wild and unpredictable – is of a piece with connecting to our world.

Both ancient and medieval theology and modern science have told us that our senses are not to be trusted – that the true reality of gods, God, Platonic forms, or of quarks, quasars, and black holes was not to be grasped by the senses. Yet it is corporal sensations that offer us the enchantment of birdsong or the wonder of the moon. The ever-shifting reality in which our animality resides resists any finished theory, refuses the would-be tyranny of our concepts, and disallows the constraint of experience into expected categories. To consciously cultivate self-awareness of animality is to become more present, to become more open to the nuances of the unexpected in experience.

On Being an Animal Who Decided Not to Eat Them

Inner tensions and cognitive dissonance characterize much of human relationships with other species. 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 atrocious confinement. The meat industry, in the US alone, each year, slaughters 35 million cows, 105 million pigs, and almost 9 billion chickens. People of good will have different opinions about this, different strategies for dealing with the cognitive dissonance.

The view I have come to is that the slaughtering is not the problem. Putting them out of the unremitting misery and pain to which factory farms consign these animals for all or most of their 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. We know enough about cow and pig and chicken physiology to know that what is going on in them parallels what goes on in humans under conditions of extreme pain and stress. The conditions at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) constitute the biggest, harshest, most painful ongoing cruelty on the planet. Many people, perhaps, choose not to know the details because the cognitive dissonance between, on the one hand, knowing the severity and massive scale of the suffering, and, on the other hand, knowing the ways one’s own eating habits contribute to it can be more than they can bear. The intensity of the suffering and the vast, vast scale of it can bring me to weep – when I’m not pushing it out of my mind.

My concern with the life rather than the death has a parallel in Unitarian theology and history. Four hundred years ago, Unitarians 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.

For me, then, deciding to be vegetarian has been a path toward greater self-awareness. 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: the pain receptors; the adrenaline, fear, and stress; the creature comforts, if they could get them; they all work in me as they do in them. Thus I was better able to be present to all the animal that I am.

We humans have for so long defined ourselves only as members of the category human. I have spoken of the value and necessity of recognizing and connecting more deeply to other categories: primate, mammal, warm-blooded, vertebrate. In this essay, I have stopped at vertebrate in order to focus on expanding our self-awareness and identification that far. It’s a start. Yet this delimitation, too, is finally false. Ultimately, what I am is also the crustaceans, the arachnids, the insects. In the end, each of us is also the oak trees, the algae, and the bacteria. In the end as in the beginning, we are the mountains and rivers, stones and dirt, air and clouds, moon and stars.

Unitarian Universalists covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. It remains to us to grasp that we are not part of this interdependent web. Each one of us is the whole thing.
- - - -
For the original "On Being Animal" post, click here.


How to Succeed at Forgiveness Without Really Trying

I must begin by asking your forgiveness. There's my title: "How to Succeed at Forgiveness Without Really Trying." Yet I must confess that I have no intention of explaining how to succeed at forgiveness without trying. The truth, in fact, is that -- except for small offenses for which casually tossed-off forgiveness suffices -- you have to try. Forgiveness takes work. It's a repair of relationship, and it requires the work of both parties: intentional, deliberate, and often hard. Forgiveness is a grace, and you know the saying about grace: it’s free, but it ain’t cheap. To “succeed” at forgiveness takes intentional commitment to a process.

On those small matters, as I noted, there are times when forgiveness is a casual matter – as easy as saying, “I forgive you.” I hear there is a Unitarian Universalist church out west somewhere, in a downtown area where parking is at a premium. A lot of people not coming to the church would park in the church parking lot. The church put up a sign:
Then there's this approach  . . .
The congregation didn’t really mind people parking there through the week – and I’ve always thought that was a clever way to advertise the forgiving nature of the church.

So, yes, sometimes it’s OK to treat forgiveness in that way – for little things like forgiving me for my title. Other times the road to forgiveness is harrowing, soul wrenching -- about the hardest thing a person can do. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.

The 1982 film Gandhi covers the violent rioting in which Muslim and Hindu mobs are forming -- attacking and killing each other all over India. At one point Gandhi makes plans to meet with Jinnah, a Muslim leader, to try to bring peace. One of Gandhi’s followers, a Hindu, cries out to Gandhi out of deep distrust of the Muslims, “don’t do it."

Gandhi says: “What do you want me not to do? Not to meet with Mr. Jinnah? I am a Muslim, and a Hindu, and a Christian, and a Jew, and so are all of you. When you wave those flags and shout, you send fear into the hearts of your brothers. That is not the India I want! Stop it! For God's sake stop it!”

But it doesn’t stop. Gandhi goes on a hunger strike – refusing to eat until the violence stops. And the fighting stops. In the film, we see Gandhi weak and in bed from fasting. Leaders of the fighting factions come in, throw down their swords and promise they will fight no more. One man then pushes through and flings bread on Gandhi.

“Eat!” he says. “I'm going to Hell! But not with your death on my soul.”

Gandhi says, “Only God decides who goes to hell.”

“I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.”


“They killed my son. My boy. The Muslims killed my son!”

“I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed – a little boy about this high -- and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.”

The man is astounded. He’s just been asked to do the hardest thing he could be asked to do. Forgiveness is more typically about restoring relations with a particular person, perhaps a specific group. In this case, the man seeks to restore right relations with his world. And to do that will require turning upside down the hate and division and the loyalties that have come to define his life. As all of this sinks in, the man’s stunned expression seems to turn from disbelief to wonder. That’s a subtle thing, the shift from incredulity to wonder. It’s the shift of glimpsing a way out, when you thought there was no way out of the hell of your life. The man turns to go. Stops. Turns back to Gandhi. Gets on his knees and bows to the ground.

The man has, we hope, committed to a very long process. A dozen years, at least, of raising a child – and adjusting to raising that child in a faith that, for now, he hates. For this man, his path to forgiveness will be long, and gradually unfolding.

This is not at all like:
“Sorry I’m late, please forgive me.”
“I forgive you. Let’s get started.”

In fact, it may make sense to say that in a case like this, moving toward forgiveness will be the rest of his life. Always headed there, never there. The way that folks in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous – the recovery community – have a saying: Always recovering, never recovered. There's a lot of wisdom in that for all of us. And as you engage in your spiritual practice and wrestle with your own demons and distractions, having reached the point at which you can no longer deny them, you might put it: Always becoming enlightened, never enlightened.

I can speak to you as a man who did find a child – about this high – of a different religion, different culture, different language. Yency Contreras was 17 when LoraKim and I met him while offering worship services at his detention facility in El Paso. (The recent documentary film, "Which Way Home" chronicles a story startlingly similar to Yency's trip to the US in 2004.) Our relationship, seven years so far, has been many things. We were not called upon, as the man with Gandhi, to actively raise him in a different faith – he had already been mostly raised in a different faith. We have, though, had to grow accepting of the Pentecostal faith he has maintained on his own. One of the things going on in all this – not especially on the surface – has been a sense of a process of partial atonement. We, with our pale skins and middle class US lifestyles, our undeserved privilege, depending as it does upon a constant flow of resources from the rest of the world, and upon global systems that encourage a number of countries, including those of Central America, to adopt policies that effectively impoverish the people and denude the land.

Having Yency has been richly rewarding. By no means a total atonement, but a step on a path. We are always atoning, never atoned – never through with the work of repairing.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are our themes of the month for September. We are honoring the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which is late this year – from sundown on October 7 until sundown on October 8. So we’re preparing for it well in advance.Yom Kippur is the 10th Day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which begins September 28 this year. It’s a new year for us, as well, in many ways – about this time of year: school started back, labor day, last week our ingathering ceremony, this week the first Sunday of our kids Religious Education program – new year.

In the Jewish tradition, you have a period of celebrating the new year, and while it is still fresh – 10 days in – turning attention to atonement: forgiveness and reconciliation.It’s a really good idea. And for Jews this period, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is the high holy days. That’s another good lesson: weaving back together the torn fabric of relationship is the most sacred, holy, divine enterprise we can possibly undertake.

In Jewish teaching, there’s no atonement without sincere effort to make what amends as can be made. The Talmud says,
“The Day of Atonement absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow person unless the pardon of the offended person be secured.”
At the level of interpersonal relationship, there’s no atonement without forgiveness.

Forgiving is fore-giving: giving what was before. To forgive is to give back the relationship as it was before. When the offense is slight, we can just say “I forgive you” and it’s done. When the fabric of relationship is ripped through, it will take more than that.

I said that forgiveness was a grace -- that is, an unearned blessing. Ultimately, yes, it is unearned. Yet we also have to work on it. We have to earn our way up to the point from which grace takes over. In other words, do the work, but don’t think the work alone is sufficient. It's necessary, not sufficient. If repair to human relationship comes, it comes as unearned grace. Do the work, and see if the miracle happens, the miracle of human reconnection in love. Just saying the words, “forgive me” and the answer, “I do forgive you,” is a start. Only a start.

One woman said to her partner, “Why do you keep talking about my past mistakes? I thought you had forgiven and forgotten.”
Her partner said, “I have forgiven and forgotten. But I want to make sure you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.”
That’s a couple that only began the process.

The whole forgiveness thing can have its pitfalls. There are ways that forgiveness goes wrong. First, as in the this case, we might think it is done when it has only begun.

Second, forgiveness goes wrong when the forgiver comes off as superior. I say, “I forgive you,” and that can cast me as the magnanimous one, all superior. Rather than return the parties to equality, it maintains a reversed inequality. That can happen when we don’t seek a more extended reconciliation process.

Third, forgiveness goes wrong when it is expected or demanded. Recognizing the virtue of forgiveness, we can come to expect or demand that others – or ourselves – forgive.
“You should forgive him.”
“You really ought to forgive her.”
This sense that it’s easy conspires with the awareness that it is noble when it does happen.

Let me be concrete about this. Some minister or priest somewhere in North America will, today, tell a battered woman that she should forgive her husband and take him back, no matter how much he beats her, because marriage is forever and good Christians forgive. Here's a situation where an intentional and extended process is required if the relationship is to be repaired at all. Yet a certain concept of "forgiveness" -- as if it were easy and instantaneous -- short-circuits the process that is needed.

Gandhi could not have simply said to the man, “You’re forgiven,” or “Ask God to forgive you.”
When the tear is substantial, it will take a lot of sewing to repair it – it doesn’t happen just from saying the words. Even if they are heartfelt words. Tears and emotions of the moment all too quickly pass without commitment to the long-term work.

Fourth, things have gone wrong when we give up on the possibility of forgiveness at all. This is the flip side of expecting or demanding it or treating it as if it were an easy and momentary thing to do – a simple act of a moment that sets things right again. Once we see that forgiveness isn't simple and instantaneous, we might go the other direction and give up on it entirely. Don't demand it or expect it -- but please don't give up on forgiveness either.

The author Dwight Lee Wolter, was at a book-signing event for his book, Forgiving Our Parents. One person “merely glanced at the title, glared at Dwight and asked, ‘Why the hell should I?’” (Buerhens 6). That’s a person who has given up on forgiveness.

In such cases, the work will be hard, and no one can say “you should” – no one can say the work will be worth it. The grace of forgiveness – the grace of being able to forgive, and the grace of coming to be forgiven – can, if not short-circuited, have a power to raise new life from a kind of death – can “break through the normal calculus of morality that calls for evenhandedness and balance.” (Lewis Smedes, religious psychologist)

We can’t make the grace come. We can take some steps to invite that grace: steps for both the injured and the injurer. For the one who has been harmed, Rebecca Parker writes that the first step is to tell the truth about our pain. We have to be able to say that we’ve been hurt and how. Even articulating that hurt may be arduous. It’s often difficult to speak one’s pain frankly.One barrier is an inner belief in our invincibility. A person may deny her or his own suffering because to hurt is to have an unacceptable weakness. And acknowledging this hurt means recognizing that we can be hurt again. Or we may fear that acknowledging a hurt will make it worse.

An Offender Reconciliation Program in Wisconsin “brings the victim of a crime together with the perpetrator of the crime, in front of a trained mediator,” if the victim desires such a meeting, and the perpetrator is willing. One woman met with the drunk driver who had killed her husband.
He said, ‘I’m sorry.’
And she said, “‘I’m sorry,’ won’t cut it. I lost the love of my life. My other half. I suffered depression. I had to deal with being a single parent with three kids.” (Larsen 3-4)

Sometimes we aren’t ready to get, don’t want to get, don’t need to get, to forgiveness. Just the first step of speaking her pain – without expecting that she accept his apology: “it became possible for her to get on with her life” (Larsen 4)

At the next step, explains Rebecca Parker, we do face a choice. Having named our pain, grieve it. If we don’t grieve, we are much more likely to pass on the very same injury to others. She writes:
“The capacity to grieve unlocks the psycho-magic of passing the pain on to someone else. Grief allows the pain to pass through one with its full power. The ability to mourn is the foundation of the capacity to forgive, and it is strengthened by those operations of grace which mediate comfort and consolation to us.”
The final step, then, is letting it go. You can’t make yourself let it go, and you certainly can’t make anyone else let something go, but you can deliberately open yourself to inviting the release to come. Letting go releases the violator from the obligation you would place upon them to suffer for their violation, or be punished for their sin.

This is not a release from accountability. Forgiveness involves "calling another to accountability, but relinquishing the desire for retribution” (Parker 16). When I say accountability, I’m not meaning taking the consequences. I mean accounting for ourselves to one another – a relation in which we accept the task of trying to make our selves make sense to another human being – who has seen our past behavior as making no sense.

The injurer, for her or his part, also has steps that can help open the iron gate through which forgiveness may enter. Here, too, truth-telling must be the first step. Tell the truth about the violation. Acknowledge responsibility. Accept the call to accountability.

Step two is justice-making. This is about restorative justice, not retributive justice. “One cannot always repair the damage one does,” writes Rebecca Parker, “but one can commit oneself to create healing or transformation somewhere, somehow” (Parker 21).

Conflict can strengthen a relationship, or strain it. Conflict can get to the point where it is hard to say what the conflict is about – what exactly is the issue – because the energy of the conflict is oriented toward other people rather than the issue. You talk to the people involved, and you find you’re having a hard time getting a handle on the issue, but it’s real easy to tell the sides – “those people” this and “those people” that – then you’ve got a high level of conflict. When we feel in our hearts, “those people won” or “we showed those people” then we’re in deep need of a process of forgiveness.

We all need each other. Nurture your spirit, help heal our world -- that's the Unitarian Universalist slogan. We need right relation with each other. As Reinhold Niebuhr said:
“Nothing we do, however virtuous can be accomplished alone.
Therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own.
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
The miracle of Reconciliation can happen, and our flourishing, the blooming of our beloved community springs from the ground of that reconciliation. It makes sense, then, that the day of atonement and reconciliation, is not only the holiest day of the year, the most solemn day of the year, but also the most joyful day.


Begin Again In Love (9-11, forgiveness, and peace)

Can we begin again? In love? With the arrival of the tenth anniversary of the events of 2001 September 11, I want to ask whether we can begin again. Of course, in one sense we can never really begin again: it is impossible to change the past. In another sense we are always, unavoidably, beginning anew. So we begin again today just like we begin again every day. It's a particularly good time, however, to reflect on those events of ten years ago and to see if maybe there's a way to make the new beginning of this day a beginning that faces our fears and turns toward love. Somewhere in between the impossible and the inevitable is the potential.

About 3,000 people were killed in the collapse of the twin towers in 2001. 3,000. Here are some other numbers for the last decade:

  • Almost 20,000: killed from our fighting in Afghanistan, counting US troops, coalition troops, contractors, Afghan troops, and Afghan civilians.
  • Over 4,500: US soldiers and civilian support personnel who have died in our Iraq war.
  • Over 100,000: Iraqi civilians killed in Iraq by military or paramilitary action.
  • About 5,000: people killed in one city, Juarez, Mexico, in a drug cartel war.
  • Over 200,000: people killed in the 2004 tsunami that struck Sumatra, Indonesia and other places along the Indian Ocean.
  • Over 300,000: people killed in the Haiti earthquake of 2010.
  • About 150 million: children dead from starvation over the last ten years, deaths that could have been prevented at a cost about equal to 10 stealth bombers or what the world spends on its militaries in two days.
Most of that is distant and impersonal. The events of 2001 September 11, however, touched many of us much more personally. We have friends or family who were in New York on that day – who were due to have been in the Twin Towers a day or two later, or who were nearby on that day and barely escaped with their lives.

The tenth anniversary of Pearl Harbor got very little attention. In that case, I think we felt like we knew how to respond, and by ten years out, we had responded. We had dispatched the threat and had turned our attention to cranking out the baby boom. With the September 11 attacks, however, we have been in a state of continuous doubt about how to respond: Have we done enough? Too much? Are we safe yet? In the one case we swelled the armed forces and the factories supporting the war effort. In the other case, we ruefully put shampoo and toothpaste in a separate baggie every time we fly somewhere. In the one case, we rolled up our sleeves. In the other, we take off our shoes…going through security. It’s a very different feel -- bare arms vs. bare feet.

Begin again in love? That would be nice. We began the first time, ten years ago, in fear. And the fear has been much more damaging than the airplanes were. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, it made us think, "oh, well, that’s nothing." Suppose he had said, the only thing we have to fear is that our brains will be seized by a force beyond our control that will cause us to behave irrationally and dangerously? Of course, that’s what FDR was saying.

In the one year after those airplane attacks, Americans were more afraid to get on airplanes. It took about 18 months for air travel levels to return to their pre-9-11 levels. During that time, we drove places more. We have ways of estimating total national automobile miles traveled, and analysis reveals that the ratio of automobile fatalities per million miles driven remained constant. But because there was more driving, there were more auto fatalities. A couple years after 9-11, driving was back down to where it had been, just as flying was back up. An additional 1600 people died in auto fatalities just from the increase in driving in the one year after 9-11. Those were people we can say were killed by fear.

Osama bin Laden single-handedly triggered fear reactions that have been estimated to have cost the US over a trillion dollars in the last ten years. Our costs and losses in Afghanistan make some sense. My sympathies lie with those who seek nonviolent alternatives to war in every case, but I acknowledge that most analysts and most US citizens agree that military intervention in Afghanistan was appropriate – just as fighting Japan after Pearl harbor made sense. But we never had any business in Iraq. And our internal private and public security apparatus has run up costs that could have provided free college for everyone, repaired the nation’s infrastructure, ensured universal health care, and green-fitted our industries to reduce CO2 emissions.

We allowed those attacks to undermine our way of life. The US responded, in our blind fear, by rolling back the freedoms and the civil liberties that I would say were the things about our country that made it worth defending. We responded by undermining our way of life. It’s popular to say that’s just what the attackers were after, but I have to say I really don't think they had passage of the Patriot Act as a specific objective.

"Our way of life" is a mixture of many habits and attitudes. Let me mention two, one very good and one very bad. First, our way of life is liberty and equality. The first amendment rights of free speech, press, assembly, worship; our system of checks and balances that prevent power from being concentrated in any one place; the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, and other protections against discrimination -- these are the shining gems of our way of life. Second, our way of life is consumption, privilege, and usurpation. The US has one-twentieth of the world's population, yet consumes one-fourth of the world-wide energy use -- and we behave toward the rest of the world as though we are entitled to this vastly unequal share, and will throw whatever weight around we need to to make sure we keep it. This is the festering blemish of our way of life.

The part of our way of life that the terrorists of 9-11 ten years ago would have liked to undermine is the part that has for most of a century treated their homelands as our own personal supply pump for the oil that fuels our consumerist way of life. Instead, what they undermined was the much more precious civil liberties part of our way of life. They undermined our tolerance – which has, historically, been problematic, but had seemed to be slowly improving. Too many of our neighbors have behaved abominably toward Moslems among us: mosques and schools burned and defaced, or banned, Muslim cab drivers and storekeepers attacked and threatened, Korans burned – not the way we wanted to put Gainesville on the map – Muslims denied equal protections, profiled and harassed.

Can we start again, please? Can we begin again in love?

Unitarian Universalists have usually not been among the worst offenders, but neither have we done all that we could to insist on liberty, and decent treatment for all. We, too, have been among the fearful: sometimes rigid and inaccessible, sometimes striking out in anger without just cause, inattentive to others needs, and allowing ourselves to be set apart and alone, for losing sight of our essential unity. Let self-forgiveness begin, and be the basis for forgiving others. Let forgiveness be the basis for beginning again in love.

We will begin again in love precisely insofar as we can bring peace to our hearts. Bring peace to our hearts. And I know that peace is not a matter of an intellectual conviction.

One of our members told me a story recently about back in the day, she lived in a commune. Hippie notions of peace and love were in the air. This particular commune had made an explicit commitment to peace and nonviolence in all things. They were deeply chagrined at the Vietnam War, and advocated energetically for peace in foreign relations as well as peace in our individual personal relations. Then one day, one of the members of the commune – I will invent a name for her – Katie – was the target of an attempted purse snatching. The purse snatching did not succeed. As the man pulled on the purse strap, Katie flew into a rage, kicking, screaming, and yelling obscenities and insults. Later, Katie was amazed at herself. There was nothing but a couple dollars in that purse. He could’ve had it. “If he came back now, I’d hand it to him. Here I think I’m all about peace and nonviolence, but I was all over that guy, in a way that was anything but nonviolent.”

Peace in our heads – ideas about living peacefully, a philosophy of pacificism and nonviolence – is not the same thing as peace in our hearts, in our bones, in our deep habits of being. Peace as a cognitive concept, and an intellectual commitment, can, however, be a start. From that start, Katie might be motivated to undertake the deep training of reactivity, rather than merely the shallow training of cognitive thinking. For me, the cognitive was a start. For I, too, have those ideas, hold a philosophy of nonviolence, and that has been true for me since middle school. I did, after all, grow up Unitarian Universalist, shaped by our Religious education and worship services. But I still got irritable. I snapped at people. I was defensive. I was snarky. I mean, a lot snarkier than any of you have seen. Once, in my twenties, I flew at the woman who was then my wife, and tackled her. Peace defined my ideas, my philosophy. Reactivity defined my life.

I still speak with an angry impatience sometimes, but now, it’s almost always at my computer, not at people. Even so, I have further work to do. And I do it. Three or four times a year, I go on a retreat of 5 to 7 days to practice the cultivation of peace in heart and bones and the habits of the amygdala and the limbic system – the emotional channels that short-circuit my better self. From those experiences – from putting the time in, being still and silent and watching the thoughts and feelings that arise, I have been gradually teaching not only my thoughts but my reactive nature that there is nothing that separates us.

Illusions of separation continually arise – they always will – yet we can grow more adept at seeing through them. It is a brain training that takes time. I can tell you how to serve a tennis ball exactly like Venus Williams, and, I can’t but maybe Ruth could, describe how to play a Bach cantata. But only hours and hours in can train you to be able to do it. I can tell you that you and I are one, but only with training can that be more than a moment’s passing thought. My training allows me to speak to you from experience about what it takes to build peace in our hearts, not just in our heads, what it takes to recognize that we are not separate.

I tend not to talk about it much, because talking about this training that I’ve had, if you haven’t had it, seems to throw up a separation – and the whole learning is about grasping that there is no separation. One spiritual teacher was asked by a brand new student: "What really is the difference between you and me?" And the teacher said: "There is no difference -- only, I know that." Yet this, too, is dangerous to say. The difference between people who know there’s no difference and people who don’t know there’s no difference is still a difference. That notion of difference, too, must be wiped away. So it’s hard to talk about at all.

In silence, watching my thoughts arise, and setting them aside one by one – sometimes sooner, and sometimes later after allowing them to carry me away for a while – I see through them. I see that my thoughts are not me, as they love to pretend they are. They are collections of reactive impulses stapled to a calculating machine. There is a true me, which is the same as you. Seeing that guy, hanging out with him for awhile, equips me to come and tell you some things that you, too, know – but which it is so easy to forget in midst of the hustle and bustle – and in the midst of fears. Fear has been such a prevalent mood in the country for the last ten years.

It equips me to coach you in the ways of peace – in accordance with the peace-making statement that this congregation adopted last January, in accordance with our stated slogan that this place be a place to nurture your spirit, and help heal our world – starting with ourselves. It’s from that experience that I offer you little pointers like: it’s not the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. You are not a part of the interdependent web of existence. You are the whole thing. All of it is right there, manifested as you.

Thich Nhat Hanh has been through many more hours and years of that training than I, and he expresses well what he has seen in the stillness and silence. I, too, have plunged deeply into the truth of these words about nonseparation, which I offer to you on the this anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This is the truth that we need, if we are to find peace and begin again in the capacity for love that peace makes possible.

"Rest in Peace," by Thich Nhat Hahn
I am a World Trade Center tower, standing tall in the clear blue sky,
feeling a violent blow in my side, and I am a towering inferno of pain and suffering imploding upon myself and collapsing to the ground.
May I rest in peace.
I am a terrified passenger on a hijacked airplane not knowing where we are going or that I am riding on fuel tanks that will be instruments of death, and I am a worker arriving at my office not knowing that in just a moment my future will be obliterated.
May I rest in peace.
I am a pigeon in the plaza between the two towers eating crumbs from¶someone's breakfast when fire rains down on me from the skies, and I am a bed of flowers admired daily by thousands of tourists now buried under five stories of rubble.
May I rest in peace.
I am a firefighter sent into dark corridors of smoke and debris on a mission of mercy only to have it collapse around me, and I am a rescue worker risking my life to save lives who is very aware that I may not make it out alive.
May I rest in peace.
I am a family member who has just learned that someone I love has died, and I am a pastor who must comfort someone who has suffered a heartbreaking loss.
May I know peace.
I am a loyal American who feels violated and vows to stand behind any military action it takes to wipe terrorists off the face of the earth, and I am a loyal American who feels violated and worries that people who look and sound like me are all going to be blamed for this tragedy.
May I know peace.
I am a boy in New Jersey waiting for a father who will never come home, and I am a boy in a faraway country rejoicing in the streets of my village because someone has hurt the hated Americans.
May I know peace.
I am a general talking into the microphone/s about how we must stop the terrorist cowards who have perpetrated this heinous crime, and I am an intelligence officer trying to discern how such a thing could have happened on American soil, and I am a city official trying to find¶ways to alleviate the suffering of my people.
May I know peace.
I am a terrorist whose hatred for America knows no limit and I am willing to die to prove it, and I am a terrorist sympathizer standing with all the enemies of American capitalism and imperialism, and I am a master strategist for a terrorist group who planned this abomination. My heart is not yet capable of openness, tolerance, and loving.
May I know peace.
I am a citizen of the world glued to my television set, fighting back my¶rage and despair at these horrible events, and I am a person of faith struggling to forgive the unforgivable, praying for the consolation of those who have lost loved ones, calling upon the merciful beneficence of God/Yahweh/Allah/Spirit/Higher Power.
May I know peace.
I am a child of God who believes that we are all children of God and we are all part of each other.
May we all know peace.
May we all know peace.