That’s right, dear readers, this is the article wherein I reveal to you the results of my five-decade-plus-long quest to discover the Meaning of Life. (And no, it’s not 42. Sorry, Douglas Adams.)
It’s actually easier than you might think. In fact, it’s so straightforward that for starters I can go back to the quote I utilized in my high school valedictorian speech. With recognition and thanks to Ms. Sara Payne, my junior year British Lit teacher who guided those of us who spoke at that commencement ceremony, here’s the quote I based my speech on (and apologies for the non-inclusive gender language, that’s the way it was translated back then from the ancient Greek):
This is man’s highest end: To others’ service all his powers to lend.
– Sophocles, Oedipus the King
Really, that’s it. Life isn’t all about you. It’s about what you can do in the service of others. This may sound familiar:
[A]sk not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
– President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20. 1961
But wait, what about all those graduation addresses that tell young wide-eyed students to reach for the stars, to be all that they can be, to carpe that diem? Bullshit. At least as long as all that achieving and grasping and climbing and striving is only about oneself, I call bullshit.
You can accumulate all the “success’ in the world (as measured by standard societal norms) and still be unfulfilled. Why is that? Because we’re inherently social animals. We live to be in relation with one another. And yes, that applies to introverts as well – they just need smaller doses of interactivity. What we really long for is to be part of something greater than just ourselves. We find fulfillment in identifying with a cause greater than mere self-interest.
There are plenty of religious sources for this bit of wisdom. The best known in the Western Christian world is probably this Scripture passage:
Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
– Jesus of Nazareth, John 15:13
The same dude also said this perplexing bit of wisdom:
All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.
– Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 16:25
What’s that? You have to lose your life to find it? You have to lay down your life to show love? You have to empty yourself in order to ultimately be fulfilled? Sounds like unhealthy self-deprecating nonsense. Where’s the part when Oprah gives me and you and everyone else a car? (Side note: Oprah does a lot of good stuff. Don’t get me wrong about Oprah.)
OK, still don’t believe me? How about an experiment? Try out this philosophy for a month. Go find something that’s outside of yourself, outside of your comfort zone, outside of your usual networks (unless your networks include a healthy service component), outside of your routine, outside of all the things you’ve built up around yourself to insulate yourself from the crap world we live in. Find a way to give back. And yeah, if you’re reading this, you’re most likely privileged relative to the rest of humanity throughout the world. And then come back to this post in a month, and let me know how things are going.
People are suffering out there. Physical, mental, emotional suffering is everywhere. It’s our job, as fellow human beings, to help alleviate suffering wherever we encounter it. And maybe part of our problem is that we’ve set up our lives to make sure we don’t encounter it any more than we absolutely have to. So let’s open ourselves up a little more. Let’s be just a little more vulnerable. Let’s actually seek out those places where there is suffering, and do what we can to mend the broken places. Be repairers of the world, tikkun olam and all that.
When you think of your heroes, I would venture a guess that you think of people whose lives were committed to service, to making this world and all of our existences better. One of my favorite quotes is from someone who did that, speaking of someone else who exemplified that. On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy (then a leading candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination), gave an impromptu speech to a mostly African American crowd in Indianapolis. It was intended to be a standard campaign speech, but earlier that day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated, and most of the assembled crowd did not yet know this news. RFK implored the audience to choose love over hate, forgiveness over violence, and coming together as a nation over breaking apart into disparate communities. For me, his touchstone line was this:
[L]et’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.
– Robert F. Kennedy, April 4, 1968, Indianapolis IN
I’ll be writing more about this soon – how we can recognize the sources of suffering, how we can help alleviate suffering, how we can repair the world, and how we can make gentle the life of this world. And I know I’m citing mostly Judeo-Christian sources here, but there will be more Buddhist-inspired ideas coming soon. Meanwhile, if any of my Muslim readers would like to add similar ideas from the Koran or the hadith literature, please feel free to comment below.
There, I said it. America is not a Christian nation. Despite what you hear from politicians and pundits and preachers protesting to the contrary, it’s not now nor perhaps has it ever been a truly Christian nation.
But what does that mean? I think there are two important and distinct ways in which America is not a Christian nation.
1) America is not a Christian nation in theory.
The intent of our founders and the grand idea of America was not to create a Christian nation. The intent was to create a nation where each and every citizen was free to worship as he or she saw fit, even if that included not worshiping any deity at all.
You wouldn’t know this from the (mostly manufactured) rage about Starbucks cups losing their (mostly pagan) Christmas decorations this season. You also wouldn’t know this if you were following recent political discussions. For just one particularly egregious example, GOP Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson apparently thinks Muslims aren’t fit to be President. In a September interview on Meet the Press, Dr. Carson (a retired neurosurgeon) opined, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” Later in the interview, Carson was asked, “So do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution?” “No,” he said, “I don’t, I do not.”
A side product of this line of reasoning by Dr. Carson is that it feeds the nutcases who attack President Obama for being a Muslim. But here’s the bigger question: So what? What if Barack Obama really were a devout, practicing Muslim? Should that somehow invalidate his political policies, or disqualify him from serving as President? Since his opponents are often quick to appeal to the “original intent of the Founders”, let’s take a look at what the Founders said. I’ll keep it simple and quote the Constitution, Article VI, Paragraph 3 (emphasis added):
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
Although this is what the Constitution clearly states, it’s also clearly not the way the nation tends to operate. Some of you are old enough to remember when President Kennedy’s Catholic faith was a major political issue. Imagine the furor that would emerge now if a Presidential candidate publicly proclaimed his or her belief in Islam, or for that matter Judaism, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, or even worse, atheism.
If there is truly no religious test for public office, would it be possible for an agnostic or atheist to succeed as a Presidential candidate? I seriously doubt it. I’m reminded of the film Contact (based on Carl Sagan’s novel), wherein Dr. Ellie Arroway loses out on the assignment of piloting the craft destined to make first contact with the extraterrestrial aliens because she refuses to acknowledge the existence of God, while her boss conveniently adopts an acceptable “civic religion” tone in order to garner support.
But now for the second point:
2) America is not a Christian nation in practice.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gave a much-anticipated speech at Liberty University back in September. For context, Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, is a conservative Christian institution, while Senator Sanders is a democratic socialist and is Jewish. At first blush these two sets of values might seem in conflict, and Sanders acknowledged that he and his crowd probably had some significant differences on certain social issues. However, Sanders also tried to find common ground as he cited the injustice of so many American children living in poverty in the wealthiest nation in human history. Sanders quoted Pope Francis’ recent comments on social and economic inequality:
I agree with Pope Francis when he says, “The current financial crisis originated in a profound human crisis, the denial of the primacy of the human person…We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose…There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. Money has to serve, not to rule.”
More recently, in this past week’s news we’ve seen the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, among other places. We also continue to see the flood of refugees pouring out of Syria, people desperate to escape the civil war and particularly the terrorism of Daesh (a/k/a ISIS or ISIL). But now, in reaction to the Paris attacks specifically, many governors of American states are insisting that they will not allow any Syrian refugees within their borders. What makes this a particularly egregious bit of xenophobia is that so many of these Governors are self-proclaimed Christians. I don’t have time to list all of the verses in the Bible that talk about welcoming the alien and the stranger, but a quick online search reveals dozens. For now let’s just stick with this well-known passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Here’s a thought: Maybe instead of spending so much time proclaiming that America is supposed to be a Christian nation, those politicians and pundits and preachers might want to spend a little more time making sure that America actually lives up to the values that Jesus taught and lived and died for. After all, wouldn’t it be better to have a Christian nation in practice rather than in theory?
- Figure out the 20% of activities, people, commitments, etc. that bring you 80% of your joy and flourishing in life, and focus on those.
- Figure out the 20% of activities, people, commitments, etc. that bring you 80% of your heartburn, disgust, and frustration in your life, and get rid of those.
In reviewing some of my previous writings as part of my research for a current piece, I ran across a couple of old columns that unfortunately still resonate today. I say “unfortunately” because I would have hoped that our nation would have made more progress on these social fronts by now. Although we have seen significant legal advances, our current political and social discourse feels retrograde. From ugly nativism to the backlash against the legalization of same-sex marriage, the elements of society that “Want Their America Back!” continue to try to drag us back to the 1950s, or the 1890s.
Without further ado, here are two pieces I wrote over nine years ago, with very minor edits for context. I hope and fear that these still have something to say about what we’re dealing with in America today.
Soy un inmigrante
So I got to thinking, after all these boycotts and protests yesterday and all the discussions and diatribes about reforming immigration policy over the past few months, what does all this really show about our society?
Before I get very far into this at all, let me point out that there is no easy answer to the problem of undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens, depending on which side of the issue you choose. We can’t simply open our national borders and let everyone in who wants to come in, but we also can’t simply deport 12 million people. The correct legislative solution, obviously, lies somewhere in the middle, but to find it we’d have to have a vibrant middle in our political spectrum, and that’s pretty well lacking these days.
But I’m more interested in what this debate reveals about us. According to statistics from a Pew Research project, about 74% of the immigrants who are here illegally are of Mexican or other Latin American origin. That means that 26% of the immigrants, or over 3 million people, are non-Hispanic. Funny though, when the pundits bloviate about “illegal immigrants”, you never hear them talking about Romanians or Somalis or Cambodians. Nope, it’s always “those folks coming across the border”, and they don’t mean renegade Canadians, eh?
So is there a racial component to this issue? Naturally. Of course, it’s also true that if roughly 3 million of these immigrants are non-Hispanic, the other 9 million are Hispanic, and so the large majority of the people in question are in fact of Hispanic origin. So there’s some justification for focusing the debate on Hispanic immigrants – but nearly all prejudices have some tenuous connection to reality (or at least reality as it’s perceived by those harboring the prejudices).
But what we have here is another set of categorizations. We have constructed a “them”, in opposition to the “we” that is us, us being those folks who were made in America, and them being everyone else. And when we set up “us” and “them” categories, you know what the next step is: We good, they bad. Yes, it’s the old nasty collective shadow projection rearing its ugly unintegrated head once again. (Click on this link for a prior posting about the shadow concept as it relates to homosexuals and Brokeback Mountain.)
So as long as there’s a “them” over there that we can differentiate from the “us” here, we can project all kinds of badness onto “them”. It’s much more convenient to group folks into categories when we can find some obvious distinguishing characteristics to use in our taxonomy. Thus the emphasis on Hispanic immigrants – they all speak a certain, other language, one that is not ours. There are other inaccurate distinguishing characteristics that are often employed – cuisine, job types, etc. – but we’ll leave those aside for the moment.
But is the “us” really that different from the “them”? I know the argument – “My ancestors were immigrants, but they came here legally, and worked hard and played by the rules and made a better life for generations to come.” The flaws with that argument are obvious – immigration policy wasn’t the same back when your forebears made their way to our shores, and for that matter I’ll bet that one or two of the folks in your family tree probably did slip through Ellis Island without the proper documents. Oh, and if you trace your lineage back to the Mayflower? Well then, you were part of an invading force – or did the Indians stamp the Pilgrims’ passports and grant them extended work visas?
Here’s what really hacks me off about this issue – most, though not all, of the bloviators who are fiercely opposed to illegal immigration are also professing Christians. The last time I checked my Bible, there was a whole lot in there about welcoming the stranger, extending hospitality to the traveler among you, and allowing the refugee to settle in your land. Regardless of your position on immigration policy reform, it’s abundantly clear that if you call yourself a Christian, your moral duty is to welcome strangers in your midst and to offer hospitality to those you encounter.
Some legislators want to make it a crime to extend practical hospitality to immigrants who are in this country illegally. Does that mean my government wants to punish me for exercising my religion, since it’s my Christian duty to be hospitable? I don’t know what the correct legislative response to this issue is, but I can say what it’s not: It’s not one that locks up a priest for offering shelter and bread to a family, nor is it one that snatches a cup of cold water out of the hand of one who offers it to another.
The Other…Does Only the Shadow Know?
In my last posting about the film Brokeback Mountain and its societal impact, I noted that the religious ultra-conservatives who are upset about the film (and about homosexuality in general) are perhaps motivated by “fear of the unknown, or fear of something different, or simply fear of the Other.” I went on to say, “there’s Jungian analysis that could be done there…”
Now, my friend who prompted this article is not by any means a Jungian, although in previous private moments he has displayed some affinity for analytical and mythological perspectives (and not merely in his admiration of old songs by The Police). I, on the other hand, am much more mythically inclined when it comes to explaining human behavior. Thus, I see the Shadow as a solid explanatory archetype. Any discussion of the concept of the Shadow in under 1,000 words is naturally going to be lacking, but in brief, it’s essentially that part of a person’s psyche that is repressed, denied, and is home to many of our darker tendencies. As Jung put it:
Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (Psychology and Religion, 1938, in Collected Works 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East, p. 131)
Part of the danger of the Shadow is our tendency to project it onto other people or groups of people. This usually manifests itself in our establishing of dualities in the world, often in some sort of we/they grouping wherein we assign all undesired traits to “they”. Note that the Shadow isn’t necessarily limited to an individual person – it can also be applied by one group of folks to another group. In other words, we thrive on enemies, because they allow us to project our own darkness onto some other group of people (‘the Other”). Have you ever noticed that in movies, the only time that all of humanity is united is when we’re all fighting some extraterrestrial alien race? We humans can band together only when we have a bigger “Other” to combat.
For the religious ultra-conservatives who deplore homosexuality, the LGBT community is their current hot-topic “Other”. Now, I’m not suggesting that all homophobes are repressed closeted homosexuals (but there definitely are a few). I am suggesting that for whatever reason, these religious folks have decided that much of what’s wrong with today’s society can be ascribed to the growing tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.
However, these days we don’t necessarily have to resort to mythological explanations for this human behavioral tendency. Now we have evolutionary psychology, natural selection, “selfish genes”, and the like. What’s the best way to make sure your genetic material is the stuff that gets passed along for eons of generations? Eliminate the competing genetic material (and by extension, those people who carry the competing genetic material)! But wait, who’s got which genes? Well, let’s see, that’s my brother, so he probably shares a lot of genetic material with me, so I’ll let him live. This other dude, however, I don’t know from Adam, so let’s take him out. Or, this guy’s a human, but those creepy green aliens clearly don’t have my genetic materials, so set phasers on kill!
Here’s a question – isn’t it about time that we as a species reach the point in our evolution where we can start consciously acting a little more frequently in ways that might conflict with our genetic imperatives? Where, as the critically acclaimed science writer Robert Wright might put it, we realize that life isn’t necessarily a non-zero sum game, where these kinds of we/they dualities have outlived their evolutionary utility? If so, how do we as a species get there?
I’ll leave the neuropsychological answers to that question to those more knowledgeable than I on such matters (perhaps the Pundit will take this on, or one of his colleagues?). From a spiritually inclined, quasi-Jungian perspective, though, I’d say that consciousness, self-awareness, self-knowledge is key. As Jung himself put it:
The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (Aion, 1951, in Collected Works 9, Part II, p. 14)
With this month’s time change and change of seasons, I’ve been thinking about the nature of transitions, and specifically a philosophical/spiritual concept known as liminality. I think it can help us understand some of the big societal controversies we face today, but more on that later.
A liminal place, either literally or figuratively, is akin to a threshold. It’s a place of transition between two different states. Part of my fascination with liminal places comes from the fact that I grew up in a very liminal place, South Florida, where the ocean meets the land and where the glitzy development of Miami sits right up against the primordial swamp that is the Everglades. If you’ve read any Carl Hiaasen novels, you know what a bunch of crazy characters such a place can produce.
Stories abound with liminal places, usually leading from the mundane to the mystical. Examples include the wardrobe through which the Pevensie children pass to enter the magical land of Narnia, or the hole down which Alice falls into Wonderland, or Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station where Harry Potter catches the train to Hogwarts. Each of these places is open to those ready to enter them but hidden to those who are not.
Beings can also have liminal qualities. One might think of stateless people or undocumented immigrants as liminal, since they reside in a place but are not officially of that place. Bisexual and transgender persons occupy a liminal sexuality space, embodying a both/and rather than an either/or. In fact, many traditional Native American cultures believed that such persons, sometimes known as “Two-Spirit” people, possessed mystical spiritual qualities.
Here is where things can get a little touchy. Many people in our society are uncomfortable with this both/and concept, preferring the comfortable dichotomy of either/or and black/white. They don’t want to imagine a topsy-turvy world in which the lines are blurred, in which time-bound traditions are overturned in favor of new emerging realities. And that’s what liminal spaces and times do – they give birth to new life, new possibilities, and new ways of being.
Some devotees of the mystical/New Age realm have hypothesized that the entire cosmos is currently in a liminal state, undergoing a major transition from one Age to another (e.g., “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”). Some talk of colors of auras changing, while others consider new frontiers of conscious human evolution and enlightenment. Some have even speculated that new dimensions or realms are coming into being.
One early thinker of the latter speculative school was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and paleontologist who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th Century. He propagated such concepts as the noosphere, a sort of higher level of consciousness interconnecting all humans (or perhaps all sentient beings), and the Omega Point, a final unity toward which all creation is evolving together. A really interesting aspect of this is that Teilhard’s transition is at some level a conscious evolution, and that probably as we progress in this evolutionary process it becomes more and more of a conscious process to move through our current liminal state.
For (Western) Christians, the occurrence of Holy Week is another liminal time. Beginning with Palm Sunday and stretching through the Gospel narratives of the final week in the life of Jesus up to Easter, this is a time of living and dying and becoming and not-yet-being and transforming, along with all the accompanying mood swings. But the Easter narrative itself draws on ancient liminal traditions.
A friend of mine in college recounted a story in which an old, colorfully erudite Professor of Classics once invited him for Easter dinner by saying, “Why don’t you come over and help me celebrate this pagan holiday with some Easter ham?” At the time, being a firmly entrenched evangelical Christian, I was a bit taken aback at this characterization of what I considered to be the highest of high holy days in the Christian calendar. Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand just how correct that old professor was.
Let’s go back a few centuries. Somewhere around the year 723, an English monk by the name of Bede (sometimes known as the Venerable Bede) wrote a book called e Temporum Ratione, or On the Reckoning of Time. Bede addressed, among other matters, the etymologies of the names of the various English months and the timing of the date of Easter (based on lunar cycles). He explained the origins of the name “Easter” by referring back to an ancient goddess, Eostre:
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month,” and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.
Now that we’ve got our Classics lesson for the day out of the way, does all this stuff really matter? Only to the extent that it shows the interrelated nature and history of religions. In this case Christianity used the name of an established pagan holiday celebration, honoring the goddess Eostre, and adapted and incorporated it into its own traditions. The coinciding of Easter with the Vernal Equinox is another intriguing point. Some have argued that this date (and Christmas) align with many other deities popular near the time of Jesus, and more specifically that Attis, Dionysus/Bacchus, Mithra and others all have associated stories of a birth (to a virgin) on or around December 25 and a death and resurrection of one variety or another on or around March 25. The accuracy of these comparative mythology claims is uncertain, but what is clear is that Christianity was often willing to incorporate and subsume elements of competing religions, myths, and holidays.
Before anyone gets too worked up about this, let me emphasize that all of this background knowledge does not in any way “disprove” the veracity of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I’d argue that faith claims such as the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus are neither provable nor disprovable, inasmuch as they are not testable scientific hypotheses. My only point of contention with certain elements of Christianity is that there does exist a context within which we can study and learn about (and yes, even evaluate) the faith claims of any given religion by comparison and contrast. Christianity is not a remarkably unique set of faith postulates that has absolutely no parallel whatsoever in the entirety of human history. Rather, Christianity is one of many attempts by our species to figure out the nature and meaning and purposes of reality.