Posts Tagged ‘values’

The Power of Words

November 6, 2020

Back in high school, I started a project of comparing adages in French and English, which later expanded to include contrasts between British and American English. I remember that the first saying I analyzed was “Every man for himself and devil take the hindmost” or in French “Chaque’un pour soi et Dieu pour tous” which replaces the devil coming behind you to God helping us all. That profound difference in attitude seems to me now to not only show a cultural difference between the French and we Americans, but also to be particularly apt to the deep divisions that have been exposed within our society, and which the present election seems only to be worsening.

People I do not know, but who expressed themselves on an engaged Buddhism election night gathering, said what I was feeling – deep disappointment that the vote was not demonstrating a rejection of the ugly, toadying, violent, racist, often viciously retaliatory rhetoric and behavior we have been immersed in these past four years. People also expressed their commitment to continuing to pursue a loving, compassionate outflow in whatever ways their lives make possible. Being one of over 600 participants in the Upaya election night Zoom gathering helped me feel less overwhelmed, despondent and alone. The periods of silent contemplation interspersed through the evening gave me space to re-attend to the directives of my own Inner Master and to find the means to live beside, rather than be tossed about within, the vortex of social/political upheaval.

As horrific as is the loss of life from the pandemic, I suspect that the greater long term damage to all of us is the seeming loss of connection, of compassion, of respect, of willingness to try to understand and accept differences between families, cultures, religions, neighbors. The pandemic’s safety restrictions only seem to separate us. There have been enough inventive ways people have found to still show love and care on an individual basis, to demonstrate that the absence of these qualities is not a necessary byproduct of Covid-19. Other countries have suffered great loss of life and limitations of interactions without the citizens turning so virulently against one another.

Words have power. Interpreting the meaning of specific words and how those interpretations can affect communication has been a lifelong interest of mine. Just recently I engaged in a discussion that almost escalated into an argument about the word courage. I took strong exception to the other person’s statement that though there was much he disliked about our president, he admired the man’s courage. It was not easy to hold on to my temper long enough to find out that we two had very different interpretations of the word courage. Once I understood that the quality admired is the focused drive to be in charge and to achieve personal goals, I could accept that quality as one to be respected. It also allowed me to point out that courage usually means knowing the risks but taking an action despite them, which in turn means being aware of other viewpoints than one’s own. Narcissists (and we agreed this president is a narcissist) do not have the capacity to see or care outside their own viewpoint – therefore they cannot have courage. 

Because I was discussing with someone close to me, and we were both intent on not harming our relationship, we sought a way to reduce the divisiveness that a difference in terminology might have created. Because of the shortage of such cooperative intent in our larger society, words have become weapons further dividing and hurting us, and all sorts of neutral items or actions have become symbols of that division and thereby lost their neutrality.

I was struck this morning by an essay in one of the news roundups to which I subscribe, that laid out the conundrum facing many news organizations now – that our social environment has become so distorted that journalists can no longer simply state facts without that action being seen as taking a non-neutral, political position. 

If I repeat the fact that states where health safety practices are given priority have lower infection and death rates than those which do not, my “ought-to-be-seen-as-neutral” statement is taken as a political attack on individual freedom. If I report that New Mexico is the first state in the nation ever to have elected all women of color as its Representatives to Congress (all three – two Native American and one Latina, one of the three a Republican) my factual statement will be read as judgmental, or prideful, or proof I am a despised liberal, when it is simply a fact.

And to wear a mask – which I do always, everywhere out of my home, all the time, primarily to protect myself but also showing respect for those around me – that action is not a political statement but simply the implementation of a health standard that existed long before there was a pandemic. My former employer required that we use masks during flu season, for our own and our clients’ safety. No politics, just common sense.

(Now – referring back to my statement about New Mexico’s representatives to Congress, how did you attribute the political affiliations? Two Democrats and one Republican, in tandem with the Native/Latina division I specified? You would be wrong.)

I have long since stopped counting the times that I remind myself that to assume is to make an ass of u and me. It is also to abandon respect, patience, compassion, discernment, listening and caring as values to live by.  

Could the bridge to repairing our ruptured society be as simple as making a national mantra of “Never Assume”? Sadly, I do not believe something so straightforward would go uncorrupted.

Which will not stop me from doing my best to implement the qualities of respect and attention implicit in assuring neither I nor my interlocutors become asses.

Reparations

August 19, 2019

Discussion about reparations for the historical wrong of slavery now emerging on the national scene have stirred a number of reactions in affected populations, and also in me. Let me start by saying I think the final decision about what, when and how any reparations might be effectively made should be left to the affected parties – i.e. those Black Americans who are the descendants of slaves.

I have heard widely differing views expressed within that population, about whether money is the proper currency for reparations, what other methods of balancing out the inequities of our society might be more effective, and whether the process should be individual or institutional. Not being a Black American descendant of slaves, I accept that I do not have a right to make decisions on the topic. I do believe, as an American citizen, that I have a right to an opinion on the options, and perhaps also an obligation to voice my perspective and reflections on the topic in order to assist the discourse and analyses that are inevitably going to occupy the public domain for some time to come.

My first observation is one that can easily be misinterpreted. I do not feel any personal responsibility for repairing damage done several hundred years ago, given that my ancestors were not party to that damage, and in my own life I have not furthered the discrimination begun then. 

My mother was a first generation American citizen and my father was an immigrant from Germany. They were Jewish, and endured discrimination on that basis, as they built a life in the U.S. I felt the exclusion of being the Jewish child in public school subjected to a teacher’s inclusion of “in Jesus name” at the end of the morning prayer with which classes began. (Now you know I am no longer young.) I was denied a summer camp job that “always” went to the captain of my college archery team, which I was, when it emerged that I was Jewish. The camp did not accept Jews

I have lived out of the U.S. for extended portions of my youth, have had friendships, dated and married across racial and cultural lines, have worked with and on behalf of groups considered by some to be the rejects of society. I do not feel that I personally owe anyone anything for whatever they have been held back from by skin color, lack of finances, or other residuals of their ancestors’ enslavement. I do feel a responsibility to speak up against that part of the society within which I live, which owes a great deal to many for past wrongs, yet who are presently continuing their campaign of disrespect, violence and exclusion.

I am at least superficially aware of the givens of being Back in America, having learned them in an earlier interracial marriage at a time and place where I was alternately treated with cold politeness or abusive disdain for my choice of mate. I have now verbalized some of those lessons to my current African husband including the types of cautions to exercise in our community and especially if he is stopped for speeding on the highway, or otherwise has an encounter with the law. He grew up without direct experience of racial disparity and has had to learn how to be a Black man in this country. He has great skill at “fitting in” and setting people at ease with him, while maintaining his personal integrity and values, so I am confident he will adapt and also be safe. I am deeply saddened that my country requires that he make such adjustments.

Institutional reparations make good sense to me. Hearing how Georgetown University was built and financed by slavery, I applaud its recent decision to provide free tuition (room, board and books should be included in that grant) to black students accepted into its programs. Going a step further, I think it should invest in school enrichment programs in predominantly black high schools, to expand the pool of students who can qualify to enroll in their college course or who can attend other solid college programs. Many other institutions in this country, if they take an honest look, will find how much they benefited from slavery, and what might be an appropriate form of reparation to offer. 

One of those “successful despite the barriers” Black Americans interviewed in a recent survey of attitudes about reparations stressed that it is “too easy” to “throw money at a problem” and think it is being addressed. Much harder is the work of changing the attitudes within our society that accept and foster intolerance and exclusion, and deny our ugly history. The interviewee stated that nothing less than a major change in the prevailing ethos of our country would suffice to make reparations meaningful. I agree with that goal, but also realistically accept it is apt to be a long time coming, especially given the major regressive steps being encouraged by some of the present political leaders in Washington. I deny them as “our” or “my” leaders – they are NOT!

I find it curious that a discussion of reparations has arisen at the same time as society as a whole is now openly manifesting much of the ugly negativity, violence and exclusion that it has been claimed lie “in the past.” How can we manage to change the country’s entire ethos, if we cannot manage to pass laws to reduce gun violence, as desired by the vast majority of all sectors of our society? Our elected officials pay lip service to “the will of the people” but too many of them go no further than that meaningless mouthing of a platitude. 

I am not prepared to get into an analysis of all that has been undermined and shoved awry in our political system. That would need multiple essays and mostly just duplicate what is already being loudly – at times stridently – proclaimed by other writers. I do acknowledge my discomfort with the quandary presented by our society’s ever escalating disrespect for differences, and the challenge of how to continue to go high as some segments go lower and lower.

I find myself refusing to sign on to petitions I basically support, when they are worded as “DEMAND” that Congress do this or that. I may “request that my Senators give attention to” my views, I will ask that they support a particular bill, and I will thank them for doing so. I am not going to DEMAND in an angry tone that they do so (and I have to say I am profoundly grateful to live in a state where all 5 of my members of Congress listen, largely share my views, and are people I am proud to claim as “mine”.) I might feel differently if I were living in a place where my views are less well represented.

(Off the topic note: I definitely feel offended by software that questions my having written that previous sentence as “I might feel differently were I living in a place where… I KNOW my English grammar while the programmers clearly do not!)

It might seem I am straying from my topic, but I don’t think so. Effective reparations require a change in ethos – and the tone with which one conveys the importance of that change is itself part of the change. It is easy to feel one must meet force with force, and I have heard the public criticism of being “too nice” or too tolerant of offensive opinions out of respect for the basic value of freedom of speech.

Is inciting to violence an aspect of freedom of speech? I don’t think so. No more than arming with the machine guns of war is an aspect of the right to bear arms. 

The principles on which our society is presumed to be based were put in place “for the general good” and not for the good of individuals or corporations. Their distortion into “rights” that have made this country outstanding in its risk of public massacre, and more recently in its level of public hate speech, is a perversion that must be resisted because both perversions are for the benefit of singular groups, not for society as a whole. 

The most effective arguments I have read for reparations – and for valuing immigrants – are those that state we must change the interpretation of our laws to be more respectful of our history with both these issues. Respect is the value that is being trashed by the “divide and conquer” mentality overwhelming not just the U.S. public scene, but that of so many nations worldwide. The protesters in Hong Kong are standing up (and sitting down) for respect and the honoring of promises made. The Anglophone protests in Cameroon are rooted in the failure of that government to respect agreements made when sections of two different colonial empires were joined into one country, at independence.

So respect for differences instead of intolerance of them would seem to be the basis for healing past damages, bridging current divides and moving ahead into a more congenial future. 

Would that I thought that as a society we could at least begin to head in that direction.

Forgiveness?

August 6, 2017

This post may cost me followers, maybe even friends, but nonetheless I feel compelled to speak my mind on the subject of so-called Christian forgiveness.

A number of different situations have cropped up for me recently, to bring my attention to the topic of forgiveness, what it entails, and what preconditions may be necessary for it to occur.  As background, let me say that I was raised in an ethical Jewish tradition, but outside of a Jewish community, such that my classmates and friends were all Christian. This was back in the days when public school classes began not just with a Pledge of Allegiance, but also with prayers, which the teacher usually closed with “In Jesus’ Name” and I silently said “Cross that last line out, God.”

My maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Russia in the early 1900’s who became one of the founders of the Labor Zionist party in the U.S., friends with Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann and other early supporters and leaders of what became the Israeli state. He sent my mother to school in what was then still called Palestine, and she was also an active voice for the creation of a Jewish homeland. During my elementary school years, she taught Hebrew in an after school program at a Jewish center, leaving me to come home from school to practice my piano lesson, do housework and prepare supper. My present skill with, and enjoyment of, cooking surely dates back to those meals.

My mother was highly and expressively critical of all religious extremism, Orthodox Jewish as much as Christian or Muslim. She saw the Jewish Orthodox community as actively harming the goals and functioning of secular Israel, as readily as she pointed to the hypocrisy of “Bible thumping Christians” who preached forgiveness but still unforgivingly blamed Jews as “Christ killers.”

From that early conditioning, I moved on to exposure to different Eastern religions, became comfortable with Quaker values and silent worship, and also with Zen Buddhism, finding myself finally, in 1993, a student of MasterPath and happily centered in an unfolding, ever expanding understanding of basic spiritual Truth. As my inner education has proceeded, layer after layer of mental conditioning has been peeled away, sometimes quickly and easily, at other times only after considerable turmoil.

My consideration of the meaning of forgiveness falls in the latter category. I have thought that I’d come to terms with where I stand in relation to “letting go and letting God” as the Quakers express it, but after some months or even years, a situation would crop up to show me I am not yet free of anger and resentment over the way some people have behaved toward me. One friend recently forwarded me one of those picture quotes that make their way around the Internet, this one stating “I’m not Jesus, so I don’t easily forgive, and I don’t have Alzheimer’s, so I don’t forget.” It struck a chord in me, and started me once more into an on-going contemplation of the meaning of forgiveness.

I’m far from conversant with the New Testament, although one cannot live in a nominally Christian country without coming to know bits and pieces of the Bible which get quoted in all sorts of context. I also had an English literature teacher in college who insisted one could not understand most American and European literature without having a familiarity with both Old and New Testament, and who therefore required that we all read substantial chunks of the Bible in order to pass his class. What stays in my memory, in the context of forgiveness, is the blessing (or is it an injunction?) to “go forth and sin no more.” I hear this as specifying that to be forgiven one must change.

“I’ve apologized so you must forgive me” doesn’t cut it. An apology, unaccompanied by meaningful change in conduct, is nothing more than empty words from an arrogant and demanding ego. That is probably why Twelve Step programs include making amends as a crucial step – not just apologizing but doing what one can to set things right – i.e. demonstrating changed behavior. If I am sorry for something I’ve done that hurt another I make certain not to repeat the hurtful behavior. I expect the same from others – and I dismiss as inappropriate, even offensive, those “good Christians” who preach that I “should” forgive just because someone apologizes.

There are profoundly good, caring and sensitive people of all faiths. Most of these, in my experience, have no need to promote themselves by their religious affiliation. Their quiet daily actions speak loudly on their behalf. The more forcefully a person insists that they are acting from Christian, or Muslim, or Zoroastrian or Hindu or any other religious teaching, the more certain I am that the speaker is likely to be disrespectful of others, unforgiving and self-righteous while demanding that their own actions be forgiven “in the name of” whichever form of God they worship.

I suspect this topic of forgiveness remains pertinent to me just now, not only because of a personal, family-related situation, but because of the recent exacerbation of offensive, intolerant, “my way or the highway” conduct by self proclaimed good Christians on the national political scene who mistakenly insist that they are merely returning the nation to its origins. Yes the founders of the United States were almost exclusively Christian men, but they were adamantly opposed to having any form of religion imposed by civil authority. The Puritans fled dictates of the Church of England. William Penn established a Quaker colony. Jewish immigrants created a center in earliest New York city. The Constitution clearly established the separation of church and state, giving everyone the right to worship as he (or she) pleases. Too many current politicians seem to have conveniently forgotten our founders’ emphasis on a secular state. They are instead critical, judgmental, demanding that law follow their particular interpretation of Christian values, and in the process totally betraying those values.

I readily admit that I shut down as soon as someone says “the Christian thing to do”, when they mean the caring thing, or the thoughtful thing, or the right thing to do is X, Y or Z. I make a sharp distinction between someone explaining a teaching of their religion and then showing how they implement it, and another person who says this or that is a religious requirement that everyone MUST be made to obey, often without manifesting the appropriate associated behavior.

Which brings me back to forgiveness, and my inescapable conclusion that it you want me to forgive you, change your conduct before you approach me, and when you approach me, ASK,  don’t demand or otherwise make it my responsibility to bring about a change in our relationship. You caused the rupture, you need to figure out how to repair the wounds. My role is to be open to be approached, and willing to engage in a cooperative effort to heal the relationship.

Not bad advice for the national political scene as well.


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