“If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with an Ethical Culture Society, well, I’m jealous.”
–Dale McGowan, In Faith and In Doubt
“We could live anywhere: Alabama, Alaska, Missouri. As long as there’s an Ethical Culture Society there, we’d be OK.”
–David Bland of the Bergen Ethical Society
Uganda Orphans benefit dinner
What is this love of Ethical Culture? To be sure it is not unconditional love. We require special conditions. People who have a very particular world view seek like-minded freethinkers who want to bond in community. Our devotion does not come easily. Our group must stand for reasoned thought and compassionate values at the same time. It must have Platforms to expose us to information important to active humanists. It must not bolster beliefs in unexamined ideologies. Jeffrey Taylor, contributing editor to The Atlantic, says, “Extremist ideologies … do not deserve respect. People do.” We may embrace meditation while rejecting prayer. We want an affiliation that goes deep. There are humanist groups that just meet on Sundays. They revel in their values but don’t have Sunday school for the children, take political action or collaborate with other organizations. We want political participation, but we also want a Caring Committee. We understand our mission. We aim to foster a world that is both kind and just. We know that it’s a tall order. It doesn’t happen by itself.
THE COST TO US
So how have we been able to flourish and meet those conditions that make us unique? We may operate on a modest budget financially, but our greatest currency is our collective will to keep our institution strong. However, our investments of time come at some cost. Now that I’ve been president for a few months, I am starting to both imagine and to hear of the frustrations of hardworking volunteers. There are some Society members who clean the kitchen in our meetinghouse over and over. Some haul heavy gear in and out of the meetinghouse so that Ethical Brew can work. Some make difficult calls to track down pledged funds. Some try to breathe new life into festivals with a tiny crew. Some tinker with the sometimes tedious work of the web in a perpetual drive to keep us current. Some take time away from families, leisure or sleep to attend meetings, run meetings or contribute to them. Some people do all of these. We turn down outside invitations because we’ve promised to give a course or to help out at Ethical. We may feel that others do less, at worst, nothing. Or we may feel that we’ve done it for long enough. Why doesn’t someone else take over? Our husband, daughter, friend gets annoyed because we’ve taken on one more task. We’re accused of being a soft touch, a wimp. We feel unappreciated, taken for granted, as if nobody knows how much we do. Doesn’t anyone notice?!? We seem to be sacrificing our lives for the Ethical Culture Society. But it is this grit that makes our Ethical Culture Society function. We work with the knowledge that we are profoundly lucky to find a fit that accommodates our world view. Together we become our most enlightened and generous selves.
And so, our investment of time (and money) may not wind up feeling like such a sacrifice in the long run. In addition to allowing the Ethical Culture Society to thrive, it may have personal benefits. It can offer us a chance to make new contacts, use a dormant skill like playing the piano or telling old jokes to a new audience. We might feel gratified that the kitchen is sanitary and free of nasty bacteria. We might sharpen our minds listening to one of Joe’s Platforms or attending Socrates Cafe. We can be touched by a compelling speaker, be entertained at a movie night. We may serve as a mentor to our youth, inspiring or supporting them, thereby enhancing our own self-esteem. We may become a role model to a struggling older person as they see how we cope with tough times and so reinforce our own courage. We may derive personal joy that Ethical Brew performances also support Doctors Without Borders, the Sanctuary Committee and other causes. Where else might we experience the satisfaction of housing a victim of torture? We can hone our leadership skills in organizing monthly dinners, a protest or a climate march. We can become more centered by participating in the Contemplative Humanism group. Over time, as members knit our lives together, we bear witness to one another’s accomplishments and tragedies. Our contributions to the Society ultimately connect us to each other and enrich our individual lives. As a congregation, our message can influence the larger culture to be more just and more caring and serve as a safe haven for other Humanists.