Yay for Our Team

We Unitarian Universalists have a reputation for being logically minded. There was a Unitarian Universalist who was on death row. On the eve before his execution, the Warden asked, “It’s customary for the condemned to have time with a priest or chaplain. Would you like me to get you a priest? A chaplain?"

The man said, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist.”

The Warden said, “In that case, would you like to talk to a math professor?”

I’ve got this part of me that says, “Now that’s not fair!” Then I’ve got this other part of me that says, actually, I think, before I die, I would like some help making my peace with transfinite cardinal numbers. (Neither infinite nor finite? What kind of Zen math is that?)

We of liberal religion do have a reputation for being logically minded. We’re also quick thinkers. There was a Unitarian Universalist youth, working her first job in grocery store. A man comes up and asks for half a head of lettuce. She says, “Hold on.” She goes back to talk to the manager. She’s telling the manager, “There's a jerk out there who wants to buy half a head of lettuce.” Just then she notices that the man has followed her and is standing behind her, so she says,“and this fine gentleman wants to buy the other half." Quick thinking!

For all that, we have learned that it isn’t thinking that saves us. It’s each other. Thinking can be glorious, but it can also be dreary when we’re by ourselves. I heard about a highway sign along a desert stretch of highway: "Your Own Tedious Thoughts, next 200 miles." Together with others we are lifted out of the constant tedium of our own thoughts.

It’s said that Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah, that Muslims don’t recognize Jews as God’s chosen people, that Protestants don’t recognize the Pope as the leader of the Christian world, that some Episcopalians don’t recognize their own bishop (if said bishop happens to be gay), that Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store, and that UUs don’t recognize each other in Wal-Mart. We do, however, love to recognize the famous people in our history. Three of the first six presidents were Unitarian: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams. The 13th president, Millard Fillmore, and the 27th president, William Howard Taft, were also Unitarian, as was the Democratic Party's nominee in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson. Back in the 16th century, there was a Unitarian King: King John Sigismund of Transylvania, reigned 1560-1570.

Other political figures include:
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), scientist, writer, statesman, printer.
Paul Revere (1735–1818).
Abigail Adams (1744–1818) women's rights advocate and first Second Lady and the second First Lady of the United States
John Marshall (1755-1835), Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) U.S Senator, Co-founder, All Souls Church, Unitarian (Washington, D.C.)
Daniel Webster (1782-1852), orator, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, presidential candidate.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935), lawyer and member of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1902-32.
Harold Hitz Burton (1888–1964) U.S. Supreme Court Justice 1945-1958
Elliot Richardson, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and Attorney General (1973).

Unitarians or Universalists in the arts and entertainment include:
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), 19th century American novelist, author of "The Scarlet Letter."
Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) Journalist.
P. T. Barnum (1810–1891) American showman and Circus Owner.
Charles Dickens (1812–1870) English novelist.
Herman Melville (1819-1891), writer, author of Moby Dick.
Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910) author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".
Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)Author of Little Women.
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), author of Peter Rabbit and other children's stories.
Carl Sandberg (1878-1967), American poet, won Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Béla Bartók (1881–1945) Composer.
e. e. cummings (1894–1962) Poet and painter
May Sarton (1912-1995) Poet.
Ray Bradbury (1920–2012) Author.
Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007), writer.
Rod Serling (1924–1975) Writer; Creator of "The Twilight Zone" television series.
Paul Newman (1925–2008) Actor, film director.
Christopher Reeve (1952–2004) Actor.

Our activists, organizers, and humanitarians include:
Horace Mann (1796-1859), leader in the public school movement, founder of the first public school in America, U.S. Congressman.
Dorothea Dix (1802-1887), crusader for the reform of institutions for the mentally ill.
William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), abolitionist, editor of The Liberator.
Horace Greeley (1811-1872), journalist, politician, editor and owner of the New York Tribune, champion of labor unions and cooperatives.
Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906).
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), British nurse and hospital reformer.
Clara Barton (1821–1912) organizer of American Red Cross, Universalist.
Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) Nobel Peace Laureate 1953.
Whitney M. Young (1921–1971) Social work administrator, head of the Urban League.
Morris Dees (b. 1936) Attorney, cofounder, chief legal counsel of Southern Poverty Law Center.

Inventors, innovators, and scientists who were Unitarian or Universalist or Unitarian Universalist:
Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) discoverer of oxygen and Unitarian minister.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882), scientist and evolutionist, author of Origin of the Species.
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), inventor of the telephone; founder of Bell Telephone Company.
Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) inventor, engineer.
Linus Pauling (1901–1994) Nobel Laureate for Peace and for Chemistry.
Tim Berners-Lee (1955-) inventor of the World Wide Web.

Best known Unitarian or Universalist clergy include:
Ferenc Dávid (often rendered Francis David) (1510–1579) Hungarian-Transylvanian priest, minister and bishop, first to use the word "Unitarian" to describe his faith.
Hosea Ballou (1771–1852) American Universalist leader. (Universalist minister and a unitarian in theology)
William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), Unitarian minister whose "Unitarian Christianity" was the manifesto of the new Unitarian denomination.
Adin Ballou (1803–1890) Abolitionist and former Baptist who became a Universalist minister, then a Unitarian minister.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) Transcendentalist, essayist.
Theodore Parker (1810–1860) Transcendentalist and abolitionist.
Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) Author of the first social gospel Christmas Carol, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."
Olympia Brown (1835–1926) suffragist, Universalist minister.
John H. Dietrich (1878–1957), primary intellectual force in the development of religious humanism.
James Haynes Holmes (1879-1964), co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, anti-war activist.
Robert Fulghum (1937-) Essayist.

As much as we love and honor our past, our eyes are ever cast to the future. We work to build a world of peace and of justice – a heaven right here on this earth. Many of us share this prayer with Diane Ackerman:

School Prayer

In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,

I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.
* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Yay For Our Team"
Previous: Part 2: "UU By The Chuckle"
Beginning: Part 1: "When the Spirit Says UU"


UU by the Chuckle

By following where our heart leads us, following the dictates of our conscience rather than the dictates of someone else, we do often end up with unique and interesting viewpoints. Like the little girl in one of our Religious Education classes. She was drawing a picture. The teacher asked what she was drawing a picture of.

“It’s a picture of God,” she said.

The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”

The little girl answered, "They will when I've finished."

Sometimes we take things pretty literally – and yet in a way that might open up a new perspective. Like this other little girl that was sad because her cat had died. She was crying, and her neighbor said, “Don’t cry. Your kittie is with Jesus.”

And she did stop crying because she was turning this over in her mind. Then she said, “What would Jesus want with a dead cat?”

Whatever you may believe about where kitties go, or where humans go, what matters for us is the peace, joy, and love we find here, together.

Ours is a tradition that has Jewish and Christian roots. There were Unitarians and Universalists over 200 years ago in this ago country, and they were all Christians then. But we were Christians with critical thinking, and, though we followed Jesus, we weren’t sure we believed everything in the Bible. I’ve heard there was a Unitarian Bible study class, and the newsletter notice said, “Bring your Bible and a pair of scissors.”

The Unitarian Thomas Jefferson did just that. He clipped out only those parts of the new testament that he especially wanted to have available to study and he created “The Jefferson Bible.”

So it’s not that we aren’t interested in Bible scholarship. In fact, some of us, like Thomas Jefferson, bring scissors, but others get into the theology. For intance, there was the UU who, legend has it, was present at one of Jesus' public addresses.

“Who do you say that I am?” asked Jesus.

The UU piped up and answered: “You are the kerygma behind all myths. You are the incarnate logos. You are of one substance and coeternal with the Father, or the Mother, as the case may be. You are the eruption of eternity into the space-time continuum."

And Jesus looked at the UU and said, “What the heck is that?”

When Eastern religious writings began to be available for the first time in English – in the mid-19th century, both the Unitarians and the Universalists were very interested, and they studied those, too. Yes we do have a friend in Jesus, but not just in Jesus. We don’t stop there. We find wisdom that guides our life also in Socrates, Buddha and Confucius, Moses and Esther.

What a friend we have in Jesus, what a friend in Socrates.
What a friend we have in Buddha, to the kingdom we have keys.
We believe in many saviors, we believe in many seers.
Souls whose universal gospel, speaks to us across the years.

What a friend we have in Moses, what a friend in Esther, too.
We have Lao-zi and Confucius, and a prophet lives in you.
When you're weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care,
Think of friends thruout the ages, ev'ry when and ev'rywhere.

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged. U U saints are ev'rywhere.
Souls like President John Adams, souls like Olympia Brown.
Oh, what friends we have to guide us. Oh, what sages we have found.

What a friend in Charles Darwin, what a friend in Susan B.
What a friend in Clara Barton, they all helped to make us free.
What a friend in P .T. Barnum, what a friend in Jefferson.
We've four hundred years of friendship, and you bet there's more to come.
- Lyrics by Tony Larsen
* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Yay For Our Team"
Next: Part 3: "Yay For Our Team"
Beginning: Part 1: "When the Spirit Says UU"


When the Spirit Says UU

Yay for our team! Let's celebrate ourselves. It’s a good idea to do that every once in a while. Yay, us! Give our own selves a pat on the back.

It’s great to be a Unitarian Universalist! Yeah!

We don’t mean any slight to any other world religion when we say this. We are not at war with other tribes. We’re just proud of our own (or, if we have transcended pride, say rather that we are especially grateful for our own). If your heart and conscience lead you to follow a Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish path, more power to you. That's just not our path.

Actually: Don't Believe ANYTHING You Think
Sometimes people in those other faiths think they’re right. But let’s be honest. Sometimes we think we’re right. I appreciate what I saw on a bumper sticker once: “Don’t believe anything you think.”

The reality is, pretty much all of us are suckers for our thoughts. We all believe our thoughts. There's a saying:
"The world is divided into those who think they're right."
That's the whole saying, because everyone thinks she's right. So let’s also keep that in mind as we celebrate Unitarian Universalism.

In many ways, we don’t choose our faith beliefs, they choose us. It’s up to us to be true to them, to do the work of cultivating them to their fullest flower. Whichever seed got planted in you: do the work of cultivating it to its fullest flower. The flower of liberal religion is rooted in the understanding that revelation is continuous, there are always new things to learn, that our community is based on freely entered covenant, that we work for fairness in the whole world, that conflict is a good thing, and doesn’t mean any side is evil or wrong, and that a better world and a richer life is possible for all of us. That is the root grounding from which liberal religion grows.

It doesn’t mean you can believe anything you want to. Let me tell you a story about that. What you want to believe might be what is easy – a theology that is superficially attractive, doesn’t require much thought or creative work. You might want some belief that you can hold and gaze upon like a pretty crystal: beautiful and static. But hearing and heeding what your heart, mind, and conscience dictate requires effort. Thirty years ago, I was 24 years old. Neecie Vanston and I were members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waco, Texas. Neecie was 70-years-old, which, you know, doesn’t seem as old to me now as it did when I was 24. She came up to about the middle of my chest. Neecie was a long-time and dedicated member of that fellowship. She had been part of the small group that founded the Waco UU Fellowship back in the 50s. I was newly returned to the fold after having been unchurched since high school. I didn’t understand that distinction between the easy and lazy believe-anything-you-want-to and the disciplined quest to discern your own heart and mind’s dictates. One Sunday in Waco, during our holiest sacrament -- the coffee communion after the service -- I made the mistake of blithely blurting, “We’re Unitarian Universalists. We can believe whatever we want to.”

Neecie overheard that remark. And she turned around. I will never forget it. It was a religious moment.
“You think I believe in what I do because I want to?” she said. “I believe this because I have to. You think here in Waco, Texas my life wouldn’t be a lot easier if I could be a Baptist? But I can’t. My conscience won’t let me. If this were about what I wanted to believe,” Neecie continued, “about what I found it convenient and easy to believe, you wouldn’t see my face here on Sunday morning.”

Unitarian Universalism: It’s not about believing anything you want to. It’s about being free to believe what you find you have to – because your conscience won’t let you believe otherwise. You got to do when the spirit says do. You got to UU when the spirit says UU.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Yay for Our Team"
Next: Part 2: "UU By the Chuckle"


The Real Work

As protective strategies go, anger is not that great. It’s an impulse that comes out of pain or fear of pain, and seeks to inflict pain back. Aristotle defined anger as “a burning desire to pay back pain.” In the process, it does more harm to us. Holding on to anger, the saying goes, “is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

When anger arrives, it comes with a certain energy. Breathe into it. That energy is usually not immediately useful outside of situations in which fleeing and fighting actually are the only two viable alternatives.

There are times when a protective use of force may be called for, yet it’s best not to use that first wave of anger energy to carry out whatever protection is needed. Protection is better served without being carried primarily on anger’s energy because that energy is so narrow, so tunnel-visioned, all it can see is the hurt or the fear and how to hurt back.

Anger makes it harder to get things right. Think of the old Kung Fu TV show from the 1970s. Caine, played by David Carradine, was indeed formidable at protecting himself. He’s able to do that all the more skillfully because he maintains inner calmness while fighting. The point was noticed many centuries before by Seneca, the first-century Roman philosopher and statesman:
“The energy of anger is not steady and reliable. It attacks violently at first, but quickly wearies and cannot sustain the fight....Nor is anything great which is not at the same time calm.”
It’s not having anger that is the sin, it’s indulging it – resigning ourselves to the fire of anger and letting it burn us up. Cultivating understanding, insight, patience, and forgiveness, allows the fire to settle into an energy for creative and healing engagement.

In the end, we are not separate. Most of the stuff I am made of, everyone is made of. And everything that I am made of exists in a lot of other people, too. Not born, not destroyed, just constantly shifting around. When that is not forgotten, the anger energy can transform into healing.

What then about Amos’ anger? Amos relays God’s view that:
“I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offering – or your meal offerings – I will not accept them”
Is Amos, or Yahweh, indulging wrath, or is he using the energy to be a calm voice for healing? It seems more like indulging wrath – but we can’t say for sure.

I’m reminded of an old Zen story. The semi-legendary founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, migrated from India to China. In China, his reputation as a spiritual teacher spread to the emperor who, himself a Buddhist, asked to see this foreign teacher. The emperor said, “Since I came to the throne, I have built many temples, published numerous scriptures and supported countless monks and nuns. How great is the merit in all these?"

Bodhidharma answered, “No merit.”

The Emperor then asked, “What then, is the essence of the holy teaching?”

Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness. No essence, no holiness.”

The stunned Emperor said, “Who are you?”

Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”

Amos was saying, “Your shallow rituals count for nothing.” Bodhidharma was saying, “Your outward displays count for nothing.”

Is the practice of your faith doing the real work of connection? Or do your faith practices merely protect you, bolstering ego in its delusions of separateness and specialness? Probably, at least sometimes the one, and at least sometimes the other. The energy of anger, the fire whose first impulse is aggressive protection, provides a key practice ground for re-directing energy to that real work of connection.

May that path be found, and the courage to take it, step by step.

* * *
This is part 17 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 4 of 4 on Wrath)
Next: Part 18: "Wanting the Cow Dead"
Previous: Part 16: "Powerful and True Bad Examples"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"


Mr. Trigg Takes Mr. Singer to Wall St

"To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class. I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do. Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance. At this point the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved? These questions can all be answered: but I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small, compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help, that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves – even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are. I am always struck by how few students challenge the underlying ethics of the idea that we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves."
- Peter Singer, New Internationalist, 1997 Apr
In 1975, the year young Meredith Garmon -- who then went by "Steve" -- turned 16, the national high school debate topic was, "Resolved: That an international organization should control the development and allocation of scarce world resources."  Some affirmative teams chose to focus on food. There's enough food in the world for everyone, they argued, so let's set up an international organization to distribute it so that starvation would be eliminated.

Some time in the fall of that year his debate coach set Steve up to participate in a "public debate" for the edification and possibly amusement if not amazement of the local Rotary or Lions or some such civic club. This would be different from the usual debate competitions to which Steve was accustomed. For one thing, it was a one-on-one affair as opposed to the two-on-two debates of tournament competitions. Steve would be squaring off against Paul, the classmate who was Steve's partner at said tournament competitions. For a second thing, this audience, unfamiliar with the technical jargon and fast talking of competitive debate would require Paul and Steve to adopt a style that was considerably slower and that spent more words (as well as time) explaining each argument.

Steve was assigned the affirmative, and, drawing on evidence researched in preparation for the national debate topic that year, he argued that starvation was significant and that, in terms of the quantity of food on Earth, ending it was possible. Therefore, we ought to, indeed, distribute food so as to end starvation. Paul shrewdly countered that this would mean food producers (which included some of the stalwart citizens in the room) would either get less than the market value they were now getting, or that we would have to all be taxed to pay the food producers the market value for their crops. And either way we'll all be taxed to pay for the distribution.

Steve thought, and argued, that surely the compelling need of 10,000 premature deaths a day from starvation outweighed these concerns. It was clear to him that we would not begrudge the costs to save our neighbors. The fact that the great mass of the most hungry are overseas doesn't matter, he said. We have obligations to help others when we can. A human life is a human life, and our obligation is not limited only to fellow citizens of the same country as us. A life doesn't stop mattering just because it's on the other side of a national boundary.

At the end of the debate, the audience applauded appreciatively. They were not polled as to who they thought won the debate, but somehow Steve had the impression that, had they been polled, he'd have lost. The audience was implicitly patriotic and would have included a number of WWII veterans. Steve suspected that he had not persuaded very many that people far away counted just as much as fellow Americans.

Lake Chalice believes that, like the students in Peter Singer's classes, we know that saving a life is saving a life whether it's someone a few yards away or on the side of the globe. Lake Chalice believes that we know that saving a life is the right thing to do even if it causes us some inconvenience and sacrifice. It's just that when the dying person in need is far away and out of sight, it's easy to push out of our minds. Steve Garmon, age 16, clearly understood that lives should be saved wherever on the globe they may be. But, as with most people, time passed and he allowed other matters to command his attention. Lake Chalice is grateful that Peter Singer has been relentless in not letting us push from mind a truth that we know but prefer to live as if we didn't: that neither distance nor nationality are morally relevant.

Other philosophy professors have picked up Singer's thought experiment, and pose to their own classes the hypothetical drowning-toddler scenario. The discussion sometimes hits students as a revelation. The revelation is not that all lives are equal, entitled to equal concern and respect. Students have all been told as much since grade school. And most teens are able to follow this out to at least a fleeting thought that overseas deaths are every bit as tragic as those close at home (which is why Singer is able to so readily elicit classroom consensus that distance and nationality make no moral difference). But the typical young person then looks around, notices that neither their peers nor the grown ups they know show any concern for this point. All around them is the general Jeffersonian agreement that "all are created equal," combined with near-total negligence when it comes to living that truth. As these teens are almost always still dependent on their parents by the time their minds mature enough to draw logical moral inferences, they confront, consciously or unconsciously, a cognitive dissonance between the equality principle and the benefit they derive from the fact that their own parents ignore that principle (i.e., their parents regard the care of their own children as much more important than caring for the youth of urban slums throughout the Third World). The revelation, then, is not the idea of equality. The revelation is that there actually are grown ups who take it seriously. Some at-least-moderately clear-thinking adult has stood in front of them and stated out loud a moral inference which, in their experience up to that point, is as universally avoided as it is undeniable. That's the revelation. It's suddenly clear that their own dim and buried realization of that moral truth is not, after all, crazy.

Jason Trigg
Occasionally, such a student will re-orient her or his life because of such a 15-minute discussion in a philosophy class. One such student was Jason Trigg. Jason was the subject of a wonderful piece in the Washington Post a few days ago. Impressed by the inescapable inference which most of us know but in forgetfulness of which live -- and of which Singer so boldly confronts us -- Trigg set out to save as many lives as he can. The way to do that, he calculated, is to make a lot of money and give it away.
"Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn.
The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer.
Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan.
Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.
He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.
In another generation, giving something back might have more commonly led to a missionary stint digging wells in Kenya. This generation, perhaps more comfortable with data than labor, is leveraging its wealth for a better end. Instead of digging wells, it’s paying so that more wells are dug." (Dylan Matthews, "Join Wall Street, Save the World." Washington Post, 2013 May 31. Click here.)
David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, suggests the missionary approach would be preferable. Better to go dig the wells yourself than to pay others to do so. Why? Apparently because the Wall Street life is liable to corrupt you.
"Every time you do an activity, or have a thought, you are changing a piece of yourself into something slightly different than it was before. Every hour you spend with others, you become more like the people around you. Gradually, you become a different person. If there is a large gap between your daily conduct and your core commitment, you will become more like your daily activities and less attached to your original commitment. You will become more hedge fund, less malaria." (David Brooks, "The Way to Produce a Person." New York Times, 2013 Jun 3. Click here.)
Brooks is certainly right that we become what we do. It's not clear, however, that financier-who-gives-away-half-his-wealth is not a sustainable identity. Is that not indeed the identity that Trigg is reinforcing with every week at the office and every consequent fat check he puts in the mail? There is no "gap between [Trigg's] daily conduct and [his] core commitment" if, from the beginning, his daily conduct is in the service of -- is the manifestation of -- his core commitment (as, in Trigg's case, it appears to be).

On what else would Trigg spend his money? A large house? A fleet of Italian sports cars? Why should we think that what he spends it on must somehow compete with how he earns it? If Trigg's wealth went into a large house, we wouldn't worry that over time he would become more hedge fund, less mansion. If  his wealth went into sports cars, we wouldn't worry that over time he would become more hedge fund, less Ferrari. Such worries would be silly. Isn't it equally silly to worry that Trigg will become "more hedge fund, less malaria"?

Perhaps it's not the work itself that is corrupting but the company Trigg keeps. He'll "become more  like the people around" him. But Lake Chalice is not sure that applies to what he does with the money. Trigg's coworkers' attitudes will surely reinforce the core value that making bucketloads of cash is a wonderful thing. But his coworkers will have different projects for the spending of it. Some will want a yacht. Some will want the earliest possible retirement. Some will want trophy lovers. Some, perhaps, will want to reinvest all earnings until they have a enough to conquer the world. Lake Chalice's guess is that Wall Street culture is pretty flexible about leaving plans for the spending up to individual taste while holding adamant to the proposition that nothing could possibly be better than acquiring. We could be wrong about that, but the honored place of wealthy philanthropists among the monied class suggests that giving it away is acceptable within Wall Street culture.

Brooks offers:
"Second, I would be wary of inverting the natural order of affections. If you see the world on a strictly intellectual level, then a child in Pakistan or Zambia is just as valuable as your own child. But not many people actually think this way. Not many people value abstract life perceived as a statistic as much as the actual child being fed, hugged, nurtured and played with."
True enough. Not many. But a few -- and Trigg, it seems, may be one. To say that not many actually think this way is only to say that not many people are able to do what Singer shows us morality requires. It is not to claim, let alone argue, that morality does not require it. OK, most don't. But should we all?
Brooks continues:
"If you choose a profession that doesn’t arouse your everyday passion for the sake of serving instead some abstract faraway good, you might end up as a person who values the far over the near. You might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around. You might end up enlarging the faculties we use to perceive the far — rationality — and eclipsing the faculties we use to interact with those closest around — affection, the capacity for vulnerability and dependence. Instead of seeing yourself as one person deeply embedded in a particular community, you may end up coolly looking across humanity as a detached god."
Brooks then invokes the Buechner quote that we have ourselves so often invoked:
"When most people pick a vocation, they don’t only want one that will be externally useful. They want one that they will enjoy, and that will make them a better person. They want to find that place, as the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, 'where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.'"
It's a fair enough point that one might end up valuing the far over the near, etc. Might. That's true for any of us. Also, might not. But, yes, it's worth keeping an eye on. Lake Chalice hopes that young Mr. Trigg's passions are, in fact, aroused by the challenges of the job and the prospect of making money to fight malaria. We hope that he finds his work fun and enjoyable. If it's possible for someone to enjoy being a hedge fund manager for the sake of buying vast tracts of real estate, then it would seem possible to enjoy being a hedge fund manager for the sake of buying vast flasks of malaria medicine. It is, of course, always a good idea to check in with oneself and ask whether one is sufficiently loving to the particular humans immediately around as well as to those far away. Trigg would appear to be in no greater danger of emotional detachment from friends and family than anyone else. It's a good question for all of us.

From the briefest of glimpses afforded into Jason Trigg's life by Dylan Matthews' article in the Washington Post, we have no basis for supposing that the job he's in isn't the place where his "deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." As an MIT computer science graduate, it may well be that he enjoys solving the sorts of puzzles involved in writing "software that turns a lot of money into even more money."

That said, at the end of the day, we actually have considerable sympathy for Brooks' point. Our souls do require work that is intrinsically rewarding rather than merely extrinsically.
"Taking a job just to make money is probably going to be corrosive, even if you use the money for charity rather than sports cars."
Yes, it probably is. We notice, however, that this objection applies to anyone working on Wall Street. To work in the financial sector is precisely to work "just" to make money -- that's why they call it "the financial sector." Money is the only product of that industry, and if we encourage people to choose work that is valuable for its own sake, then we must always discourage them from Wall Street jobs, since money is the one thing that, by its nature, cannot be valuable for its own sake. Its value necessarily lies only in what can be done with it. If Jason Trigg shouldn't be on Wall Street, no one should. And if the making of money the Wall Street way can ennoble any soul -- because said soul holds a sincere and undeluded belief in the good that money can do -- then Jason Trigg's soul is eligible.


Powerful and True Bad Examples

Scripture and other ancient legends and myths are not to be approached the way you would approach testimony in a criminal court trial. They are texts to be approached the way you approach poetry.

The tetragrammaton, YHWH, often pronounced Yahweh, many scholars believe is a verb derived from the Hebrew root for “to be.” In Exodus 3:
“Moses said to God, ‘When I come to the Israelites and say to them “The God of your fathers has sent me to you” and they ask me “What is His name?” what shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh’.”
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh is variously translated as “I am that I am,” “I am who I am,” “I will be what I will be,” “I am who am” “I am what is,” “I am.” We are invited to conceive of reality poetically as a living being, to relate to reality in the dynamic, free-flowing way we relate to people. We are invited into a relationship with our world in which our purpose is not to control and predict but to befriend. This is challenging. Reality -- a.k.a. "that which is," "I am who am," Yahweh -- is sometimes capricious. The world sometimes treats us as if it is punishing us, as if it is angry.

This is, indeed, life. Life is not all love and sunshine.

We need stories that help us express, and thereby come to terms with, the fact that sometimes life beats us up. Even in the midst of times when the whole world seems angry at us, there is yet an ongoing, abiding relationship with the universe that feels like love. As those within the Jewish and Christian traditions tend to put it: “God’s anger is not the opposite of God’s love. Rather, God’s judgment is an expression of God’s love.” It’s a mythic way in to cultivate a capacity to affirm what is, even the hard parts – while at the same time finding in that affirmation a wellspring for kindness toward others.
“But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos)
Potent and powerful are these stories that tell the truth about the fact that the world is sometimes pretty stern with us, but that a relationship called love prevails, and that kindness and fairness toward others is the needful response. That’s a truth that does not fail.

At the same time let us also frankly acknowledge that Yahweh’s punitive judgments as depicted in a number of the stories of the Tanakh are bad examples of how to handle anger. There are more skillful ways of handling it.

Anger or wrath is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins. Along with gluttony, sloth, greed, vanity, lust, and envy, the seven deadlies are tendencies we are all prone to. We don’t all commit murder, theft, adultery, or perjury, but we are all presented with these seven challenges which, if not handled well, can lead to lying, cheating, stealing, or even murdering. The seven are all teachers to study and learn from. They are all the ego’s addictions – and as with drug or alcohol addiction, as the 12-steppers say, we may be recovering but are never recovered.

The ego’s central conceit is to believe in itself. The ego is a virtual machine programmed to convince you that it is the machine itself. A virtual machine is a software-implemented abstraction of the underlying hardware, which is presented to the application layer of the system.

The ego is just one app. It’s the ultimate “killer app” because it fools itself into thinking it’s the computer itself, or the essence of the computer, or that the only reason the computer exists is to be a vehicle for this one app. Specifically, the ego is a kind of anti-virus app. There’s a vast interconnected world wide web, and this app's job is to pick out just one thru-way point on the great web of flowing energy and information – pick out one node on the web, a node called “a personal computer” (personal!) and protect that one tiny node from the sort of energy and information that could harm it. In order to do that, the anti-virus app has to delimit what it is protecting, draw boundaries, cordon off a chunk of the vast web and call that chunk "self."

Anger is one such protective strategy. It’s not that great a strategy. It’s an impulse that comes out of pain or fear of pain, and seeks to inflict pain back. The more civilized we become, the less often is such a strategy effective.

* * *
This is part 16 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 3 on Wrath)
Next: Part 17: "The Real Work"
Previous: Part 15: "Amos 'n' Angry"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"