Can Ethical Culture Help You in a Time of Personal Crisis?

Can Ethical Culture Help You in a Time of Personal Crisis?

By Marc Bernstein

Few in this room believe in a God who answers our prayers. Probably no one believes in an afterlife that will redress our suffering here on earth. Yet Ethical Culturists suffer like everyone else. We bury our parents, our spouses, and sometimes our children. So, when life seems unbearable, what does our faith offer us? This is a question we do not often raise these days. But it was a question Felix Adler asked repeatedly. He believed Ethical Culture had an answer to the problem of suffering. I will draw on some of his ideas this morning.
Let me begin by clarifying my concerns in this talk. First, in asking, “Can Ethical Culture Help You in a Time of Crisis?” I am asking not whether the members of the movement can provide solace to sufferers, because the members of almost any kind of community can comfort one another. Today, I am asking whether the beliefs at the center of Ethical Culture can help in a time of crisis. If we focus only on those who practice a faith, and not on the principles about which that faith is organized, we can miss something essential about it. Most of my talk will examine the ideas of Ethical Culture. Second, I assume that the belief system is well understood by the individual in crisis. Some of the ideas I will discuss, though central to the movement, come from writings inaccessible to most people in Ethical Culture. As the movement’s archivist, I have the advantage of being surrounded by Felix Adler’s papers. This morning, I will draw on some of these papers to suggest how Adler’s ideas can help those struggling with travail.

Finally, the term “a time of personal crisis” needs some explication. I use the term to convey some problem in living that keeps us from carrying on with life as we know it. A death in the family that hits very hard, a sickness that incapacitates us, a transgression that harms another and haunts the wrongdoer—these are the kinds of crises I have in mind this morning. Obviously, there are countless others, and I select these because they are illustrative and because Adler had much to say about them.

Our parameters now clear, let me talk for a few moments about some key ideas in Ethical Culture that may prove helpful to someone facing a personal crisis. Felix Adler argued that when we speak of morality, we are speaking about an individual’s salutary influence on others. It is not enough that we pay our debts or speak the truth; the morality of Ethical Culturists must be measured by the beneficent influence we exert on others. Adler’s supreme moral rule: “Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in yourselves” is a vehicle for moral development. Ripped out of the context of his larger discussion of morality, it sounds like a cliché. Examined within that context, it takes on a large, perhaps profound meaning. Adler wanted a rule that would apply to all life situations, those that are happy, those that are tragic. He also wanted a rule that worked even when individuals unequal in status—parents and children, teachers and students, employers and employees—found themselves together. Adler thought the golden rule inadequate because it didn’t work when individuals were not equals. So, for example, parents cannot treat their children the way they want their children to treat them—it makes no sense. Adler felt that he had developed a moral rule that could apply to all situations, a rule that could help us achieve an integrity or wholeness that eluded us when we lacked a single standard for our behavior.

Adler also argued that happiness is an illusory goal in life. If we make happiness our quest, we will fail. Most of the time we are not going to be happy. If we make worthiness our goal, then we can feel successful even when we are unhappy. Worthiness can be defined as a state in which we prove equal to out highest ideals. When we improve the world, we feel a renewed sense of worthiness. Ethical Culture, therefore, must be a religion of duty. This is Adler’s view.

What are the fruits of such ideas when applied to situations of personal travail? Let’s begin with the problem of illness. When someone is faced with an illness that seems to rob life of all hope and therefore of all meaning, what does Ethical Culture have to offer? A man’s marriage falls apart and he sinks into a severe depression. His ten-year-old daughter goes to live with his ex-wife in a city 2000 miles away, and the man seems to have nothing worth living for. He finds it difficult to go to work, in fact, even to get out of bed. His body begins to shut down. His appetite diminishes; his libido dries up. Friends try to bolster his spirits, but he is uncommunicative and so depressed that they find it difficult to be with him. His physician recommends a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist hospitalization. He is institutionalized for three weeks, then, armed with anti-depressants, he is released, but the problem of meaning persists. He continues to see a counselor; the main subject he raises at every session is the same: Is life worth living?

What would Ethical Culture’s ideas lead this man to do?—that is my question. First, they would ask him to consider the good influence he has exerted in his life and ask him how he might continue to exert it, especially with his daughter. Far away she may be, but can he play a constructive role in her life? Can he correspond with her regularly? learn about her school projects? her soccer games? her friends? Can he keep whatever ill feelings about the divorce separate from his relationship with his daughter? In a word, can he concentrate his energies on doing everything within his power to be a good father, the distance between him and his daughter notwithstanding. Ethical Culture would lead him to try to do as many of these things as he can. By helping his daughter, he might just help himself.

Furthermore, Ethical Culture would ask him to consider his influence in other realms. Before he was thwarted by depression, what good effects did he have on others? Did he ever coach a team, for example? Would he consider coaching one now? How can he be useful?—that is the question he must ask himself, and in being useful he may find his ego strengthened and his life filling with purpose.

If I sound particularly assertive about these matters, it is because I was once in this man’s shoes. Though the sources of my illness were different from his, the effects were the same: a loss of meaning and interest in life. In one of one of my worst moments, I recall an exchange I had with my therapist. I recall saying, “John, the worst thing about this situation is that I can’t think of anything to do that would make me feel better.” He looked at me and said, “Do something for somebody else.” Though I sat there stupefied for a minute, his message sank in. I did not know what Ethical Culture was in those days, but here was a little nugget that Felix Adler himself would have been comfortable giving. The advice was no panacea. It did not transform my life; it did not even help me turn the corner. But, it was a place to begin, a new orientation toward my predicament, and one of the best bits of wisdom I got during my illness.

Illness almost inevitably leads to preoccupation with self, to absorption with one’s own body and thoughts. Adler understood this well. In many places, including his Ethical Philosophy of Life, he argued that the moral defense against such egoism is to focus on the needs of others. This may be demanding, especially in cases where death nears, but Adler claimed that getting outside oneself by exerting even a little influence on others is the best way to cope with the problems of the sick bed. A letter to one’s child or grandchild would certainly meet this criterion. Moreover, to show others how to die with dignity, how to bear up at the end is a great lesson to pass on. It is a gift, though admittedly a strange gift, to the living. Though it cannot heal the body of a figure supine on a hospital bed, such behavior can fortify his spirit when little else can.

Let me leave the issue of illness and turn to crippling guilt, a problem not as common as illness, but worth discussing here.

When Freud argued in Civilization and Discontents that guilt was the great problem of the modern world, he certainly overstated the case. I doubt that he would have made this case today. Our society, for sure, does not seem particularly riddled by guilt. However, some personal transgressions are so awful that they can crush the wrongdoer. Consider for example the following headline from the New York Times of July 20, 2006: “Priest is Killed by Minivan; Driver was Drunk, Police Say.” “A retired Roman Catholic priest was killed [in East Hampton, New York] Tuesday evening by a woman who was later charged for the third time with driving while intoxicated, the town police said.”

“The police said the woman, Karen L. Fisher, was driving her 2003 Dodge Caravan …when she hit the priest, William F. Costello, 79, with such force that his body smashed through the windshield.”

“Monsignor Costello, who was out for a stroll near his sister’s house in the hamlet of Springs when he was hit, was pronounced dead at Southhampton Hospital, the police said.”

Killing a pedestrian—a priest, no less—because one is drunk at the wheel. I can’t imagine coping with the attendant guilt. But suppose I had to. What would Ethical Culture lead me to do?

Interestingly enough, Felix Adler, addressed this issue in a talk at the New York Society on November 18th, 1906. I take a few liberties with his argument, as he focused on transgressions that were not violations of law like drunk driving and vehicular homicide. Nevertheless, his words are relevant:

“One of the great objects of an ethical movement must be to call into operation the activities of remorse…to disturb [the wrongdoer’s] consciousness, to make it not only uneasy but intolerable; because remorse is not to be regarded merely as pain set off against pain as a sort of external penalty but remorse is the beginning of the cure.”

The cure, he said in the same speech is a change of heart and the earnest desire to exercise a beneficent rather that a baleful influence on others. But how does one do this?

A 1991 American novel features a character who shows us how. In Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe, Ian Bedloe is a happy seventeen-year-old high-school junior from a solid Baltimore family. He is affable, bright and handsome—the son every parent wants. Ian has an older brother, Danny, whom he admires, and as the book opens, Danny has fallen in love. Lucy, the object of Danny’s affection, is a divorcee with two children and new to Baltimore. Ian likes Lucy’s looks and style, and he thinks that Danny has found the right woman; the rest of the Bedloes are not so sure. For one thing, the child Danny and Lucy have is born too soon. Is Danny really the father?

Ian is Lucy’s ally and her babysitter. One evening, however, when Ian has an important date with his girlfriend, Lucy leaves him stranded with the children. He eventually gets a lift from Danny, but in a moment of frustration, Ian makes indiscreet remarks about Lucy in the car. A few moments after he drops off Ian, Danny drives headlong into a wall and dies. Within months, Lucy also dies, apparently from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Two adults dead, three children orphaned—all his fault, Ian believes. Guilt haunts him like a ubiquitous ghost, interfering with his thoughts during the day, distorting his dreams at night. He can find solace nowhere, until one evening he wanders into the Church of the Second Chance, a storefront church led by a Reverend Emmett. After Ian prays for forgiveness, the Reverend hears Ian’s story. This is the exchange that follows:

“Don’t you think I’m forgiven?”

“Goodness, no,” Reverend Emmett said briskly….

“But … I thought that was kind of the point,” Ian said. “I thought God forgives everything.”

“He does,” Reverend Emmett said. “But you can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, God.’ Why anyone could do that much! You have to offer reparation—concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church.”

“But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s something nothing will fix?”…

Reverend Emmett started collecting hymnals from the chair seats. Apparently he was so certain of the answer, he didn’t even have to think about it. “Well, first you’ll need to see to those children,” he said.

“Okay. But…see to them in what way, exactly?”

“Why, raise them, I suppose.”

“Huh?” Ian said. “But I’m only a freshman!… I’m away in Pennsylvania most of the time.”

“Then maybe you should drop out.”

“Drop out?”


“Drop out of college?”


Ian stared at him.

“This is some kind of test, isn’t it?” he said finally.

Reverend Emmett nodded, smiling. Ian sagged with relief.

“It’s God’s test,” Reverend Emmett told him.


“God wants to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm you’ve done.”

“But He wouldn’t really make me follow through with it,” Ian said.

“How else would He know, then?”

“Wait,” Ian said. “You’re saying God would want me to give up my education.”

“Yes, if that’s what’s required.” Reverend Emmett said.

Though Felix Adler spoke a different religious language than Reverend Emmett, he would have applauded this advice. It squares with Adler’s own remedies for wrongdoing. The sinner—Adler was comfortable with the term—must be willing to make a fundamental change of heart, then turn influence that was toxic into influence that is beneficent.

Ian proves equal to the task, and the rest of Saint Maybe charts his journey to redemption, a journey that includes a job as a carpenter, heavy responsibilities with the children, and many sacrifices: his college education, his hoped-for marriage to his girlfriend, his youth. Ian’s struggle to atone lasts some twenty years, but he emerges from it spiritually sound. He also ends up with a rich life; he has a family of his own, as well as the love of nieces and nephew. Of course, he did not expect this outcome when he chose his path—that’s the point.

Will the driver who took the life of a priest walking down the street show the same strength of character as Ian? Will Mark Foley? We can only hope so. They must feel what Adler called the “weight of remorse,” must commit to a change of heart, then take actions similar to Ian’s to win peace of mind. This is the advice Ethical Culture has to offer the transgressor.

Having discussed illness and wrongdoing, let me turn to another life-crisis: bereavement.

This was a subject Adler turned to often when he explored Ethical Culture’s message to sufferers. A man loses a wife of forty-five years and feels the ground pulled out from under him. A couple loses a twenty-year-old child to AIDS. Does Ethical Culture speak to those who have suffered such losses?

In an 1895 address entitled, “Consolations,” Adler considers several kinds of solace offered to those who have lost loved ones. He dismisses the argument that we all must suffer as relatively useless to the bereaved; suggests that the sympathy of friends is short-lived; he does not accept the claim that time heals all wounds. What is left, then? Action. Because suffering is a passive state, its cure, Adler says, lies in action; in particular, action born of duty. “They say,” Adler writes, “it is a blessed relief, in hours of affliction, to be able to shed tears…. But it is a still greater relief to be able to dry the tears of others, and thus to forget self in unselfish thoughts.” That is, good works help us overcome loss.

This recommendation, so consistent with the idea that we bring out the best in ourselves when we elicit the best in others, invites illustration. A number of figures have turned their private grief into a springboard for work on public causes. The 9/11 families, Cindy Sheehan, the AIDS activist, Elizabeth Glazer, all come to mind. An historical example, Mary Todd Lincoln, is a particularly interesting case. Let’s take a few minutes to consider her story.

In 1850, the Lincolns lost their first son, Eddie, age four. Both parents took it hard, but Mary collapsed the day Eddie died and spent the next weeks in her bedroom. Twelve years later, another child, Willie Lincoln, died, probably of typhoid fever. The death of Willie, Mary’s favorite, left her so unwell she could not care for Tad, another Lincoln son who was also stricken. President Lincoln hired a nurse, Rebecca Pomeroy, to care for Tad. Pomeroy had lost her husband and three sons, yet found peace, even happiness, caring for soldiers wounded in the Civil War. Pomeroy intrigued both Lincolns.

Tad gradually improved, but Mary struggled emotionally. She wanted no reminders of her dead son. She banned Willie’s playmates from the White House and had Willie’s clothes sent to relatives out of state. She never entered into his bedroom again.

In time, Mary’s mood lifted and, perhaps inspired by Nurse Pomeroy’s example, she took to visiting soldiers in hospitals around Washington. She brought great quantities of fresh fruit and flowers to the wounded, read to them, helped them write letters to their loved ones. “But for these humane employments,” a friend who often went with her on her rounds recalled Mary saying, “her heart would have broken when she lost her child.”

Later on, Mary raised money for escaped slaves and, after Emancipation, for freed slaves who were living in horrible conditions in Washington, D.C. She also became a “one-woman employment bureau” for African Americans, always trying to get them jobs.

Such actions helped Mary make peace with Willie’s death. But, unlike Nurse Pomeroy, she never fully came to terms with her loss. Mary turned to spiritualism, to seances and mediums, to summon Willie’s spirit from beyond. Spiritualism flourished in 19th century America, and Mary Todd Lincoln succumbed to its promises.

Mary’s story clarifies some of the issues I am dealing with this morning. First, in the heat of a personal crisis, an individual may be so overwhelmed that he or she is not ready to give to others. It took some time before Mary could summon the strength to visit Civil War soldiers. Adler fails to acknowledge the need of the sufferer to simply absorb the shock of what has befallen her. Second, Adler’s advice to the bereaved—engage in good works—may prove more helpful to some individuals than to others. What worked for Rebecca Pomeroy did not work as well for Mary Todd Lincoln. Adler’s suggestion to the bereaved is more like a tonic than a cure. Some blows in life are so severe that we can never fully recover from them—fortitude is the most we can hope for.

Third, these Civil War examples make clear that people were relying on good works to overcome loss before Adler advanced the idea in his Ethical Culture addresses. So, why talk so much about Adler today? Because Adler develops the same moral rule—increase your beneficent influence—for many forms of suffering. Whether it is bereavement, illness or wrongdoing, Adler asks the same thing of us. Even more important, his prescriptions are not ad hoc responses to suffering; they form part of a coherent philosophy of moral living. In periods happy or tragic, Adler tells us, we realize our best selves only through actions on behalf of others. Those who accuse Ethical Culture of being too easy a religion, of not asking enough of its members, simply do not understand its principles. Adler exhorts us, even in our darkest moments, to consider the needs of others. Ethical Culture gives sufferers not a promise, but a task.

* * *

I have tried to argue that the central ideas of Ethical Culture can offer solace to those in crisis. Having made my case, let me now relax the parameters with which I began my talk this morning, parameters that led me to focus not on Ethical culture as a community, but on its ideas. Of course, Ethical Culture is not just a set of ideas. It is a family of Societies, each one built around a community and the activities that hold that community together. This truism is worth keeping in mind when considering how Ethical Culture helps those in crisis. If our route out of suffering is paved with good works, Ethical Culture Societies provide a venue in which to do them. When reeling from a crisis, we find not only a supportive community, but also an institution that gives us an opportunity to do the necessary work of healing. A personal example helps make this point. After I had been through the illness I described earlier and had resolved to leave the academic world for manual labor, I discovered Ethical Culture. Just at the time I wanted to feel that the academic career I had abandoned was not for naught, my local Society gave me an opportunity to teach Sunday School. Ethical Culture gave me a chance to make a difference, to exercise beneficent influence, in Adler’s words. If we consider the number of skills needed to make an ethical Society vibrant—financial, administrative, social, pedagogical, to say nothing of skills required to maintain a building—then it is clear that anyone struggling with travail can find a way to make a contribution, a contribution that simultaneously benefits the Society and the individual in question.

Finally, let me offer a few observations about the role of Ethical Culture as a community. Personal tragedies deserve recognition and remembrance by others. A sister of a man who died of AIDS in the early years of the epidemic explained to me that the worst aspect of that tragedy was that those who were closest to the dead could not serve as lasting witnesses to what had happened. The best friends of AIDS victims also had the disease and died soon after their friends did. It was as if memory itself were erased. That does not happen here. Here, personal crises—those that are final, like loss of a loved one, or those that prove transitory, like some illnesses— are felt by those in our community. Even if we cannot directly help those among us who suffer, we can validate their suffering by our presence and in our memory. We can, to borrow the words of W. H. Auden, be an affirming flame for those who experience darkness.

In sum, the ideas of Ethical Culture indicate direction for those struck by tragedy; the activities we undertake provide opportunity for them to work to assuage their pain, and the people of Ethical Culture serve as solemn witnesses to their woe. In all of these ways, our movement can help fellow sufferers as they try to make peace with their lot.

[Marc Bernstein is a member of the Ethical Society Culture of Bergen County and now serves as the archivist of the American Ethical Union.]

Platform address by Marc Bernstein, Sunday 11 March 2007

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