By Dr. Joseph Chuman
This is a statement of gratitude.
There are times when humility calls us to be thankful for life’s circumstances that have brought us good fortune. For me this is one of those moments. As most of you know, I will be leaving my position as the leader of the Bergen Ethical Society, this community, my community, at the end of this month. This ending engenders many thoughts and feelings too numerous and subtle to readily convey. But I will try to share some of them now.
In a few weeks I will leave my position and will be entering a new territory. I do so with some trepidation and considerable sadness, and I regret awfully that Linda, my life partner for more than 40 years, is not here to share in this moment with me. My work with the Bergen Ethical Society in great measure has been my life. It has been a habit, a reflex, and facing a new day without it confronts me as strange.
But even more so I remain immeasurably grateful for the eventualities of fate and fortune that have allowed me to serve our community and its ideals. I am thankful beyond words to you, the members of our marvelous community, and to those members past, with whom I have shared my life for almost 50 years.
Mine has been a very long career. I have been the professional leader of the Society since the fall of 1974, for 46 years. But my association with the Society has been even longer. In 1970 to 1972, I was a leader-in-training and completed my internship here before leaving for the Essex Society in Maplewood, then returning two years later to my current position. But it is not longevity that accounts for my good fortune.
‘The most fruitful environment imaginable’
My fulfillment has many sources. In the first instance, my engagement with the Society has enabled me to be who I am in ways that have mattered most. I have long believed that work is the primary medium through which a person engages the world. And in the process of that expression one molds his or her character, unfolds one’s potentials while being guided and inspired by dreams and aspirations. I have never seen work primarily as a means to make money nor even sustain a livelihood. The social psychologist Erich Fromm had once observed that living out a life is an art in which a person is “both the artist and the object of his or her art.” In the most concise terms, we are what we do, and work is a mainstay of our life’s activity. My choice to devote myself to Ethical Culture leadership has been for me the most fruitful environment imaginable by which to realize this philosophy and become who I am.
In the deepest sense, I have not looked upon my long journey with the Society as merely a job, a career, or even a vocation: It has been rather a way of life. The gap between my life and work has been a very small one indeed. My work with the Society has required that I be responsive to the community, its members, and their needs. But within that very broad and varied constraint (or should I say opportunity?) I have had the greatest freedom to pursue my interests, frame my own projects and goals, develop my potentials, seek justice and perhaps, most significantly, live out my highest values and ideals.
This has been a source of great personal and spiritual fulfillment. Many people with whom I have spoken through the years have told me of the pain they feel with regard to having to compromise their honesty and personal integrity to survive in the workplace. They live a life of a divided conscience. By contrast it has been my great fortune, with very few exceptions, to have been able to pursue my work in the Ethical Society in conformity with my highest values and ideals. And even further, I have understood it as my role, as far as possible, to be an exemplar in my professional and personal life of the values that Ethical Culture stands for. I have needed to practice what I preach. This carries a self-awareness and obligation, to be sure. But the rewards far outweigh the burdens. The ability to pursue my work with integrity is a rare and beautiful gift.
This wonderful community is ‘the greatest reward’
But the greatest reward is that I have pursued my work and have developed my interests and potentials with the members of this wonderful community. Throughout the decades, I have developed my thought and espoused my ideals through hundreds of Sunday morning addresses. I have officiated at hundreds of weddings and have honored the lives and deeds of so many people in crafting eulogies spoken at their funerals and at memorial services. I have worked to bring greater justice to the larger community in the name of the Society and have invested endless hours in building our organizational structure, striving to enable us to become the outstanding and beautifully functioning community that we are. There has been this and much, much more.
But behind the espousal of ideals, the ceremonies, the organizational work, there has been the real life engagement in thousands of relationships and innumerable encounters that have enabled me to enter the lives of others and touch their humanity.
Humanism is not merely a philosophy but lived experience. And so I have shared life’s joyous moments and moments of tragedy and sorrow on countless occasions. I have laughed with members and witnessed their tears. I have enjoyed dinners in their homes, and partaken in conversations both casual and momentous. And I have sat at their bedsides and held their hands in their last hours. As implied, the boundary between my personal life and my role as an Ethical leader is very thin and often fades. When a parent shares her joys and anxieties with me about her child, is this a friendly conversation or does my station as an Ethical leader ensure that it is something more than this? I conclude it is both. In a sense my life and my work have become indistinguishable. And so it has been.
My career in Ethical leadership, with this community, has brought me into relations with very many wonderful people in many ways that have immeasurably enriched my life. I have tried to pursue my work with a sense of integrity, with respect for the people I have serve. I have been able to express my ideals and you have listened and I have felt honored and respected. I could not ask for more. I will remain forever thankful.
I have entitled my final address “Life and Work.” I hope you can join me.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is the leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.