By Dr. Joseph Chuman
If communities were a work of art, the Bergen Ethical Culture Society would be a masterpiece. A bit overstated, you might contend. Perhaps. But I believe we have much that is very winning and attractive. I measure our community’s elegance by several impressive criteria that serve to inspire.
The Society is comprised of an impressive number of smart, clear-thinking people who are monumentally devoted to the community, the people in it, and to its binding ideals. This devotion is obvious in the extraordinary commitment of time and energy that people render to the Society and the care and diligence they bring to it, in many cases over the span of years.
Secondly, everyone seems to know what is to be done, the boundaries of the jobs they undertake, and do not seek to overrun those boundaries and invade the appropriate turf of other members. One can argue that in volunteer organizations, wherein making money is not an objective, augmenting one’s ego becomes the currency of success. Petty battles are not unknown in volunteer associations, even those established like ours for benevolent social purposes. Yet, from my standpoint, our Bergen Society is remarkably devoid of ego flaunting, self-aggrandize-ment, turf battles and “power struggles,” though in my view referring to “power” struggles in small organizations that have little significant power in the realms of politics and finance has always seemed to me more than a little farcical and silly. Do we have disagreements? Sure. That’s a good thing; it is how organizations grow and improve. But no one seems mean-spirited. Differences of viewpoint are most often resolved through cooperation and compromise, leading to consensus.
Third, there is an intelligence in how we operate. Goals are democratically planned, ways of meeting those goals are precisely articulated, and then we move ahead. Often we enjoy success; some-times we don’t. But our discussions are not often frivolous nor irrelevant to our purposes (though there is sometimes a need to engage some chatter before we get on track) and we tend not to waste time nor money. Having said this, we are not a cadre organization either; we undertake our work often with good humor, and in the final analysis not too many of our members are hyper-principled. Principled, yes, but not to the point of being dogmatic, self-righteous or unable to comp-romise. Felix Adler had an insightful phrase to the effect that “ethicizing is right organizing.” I like that. Even in mundane and ostensibly practical and secular tasks, deeper meaning and ends are revealed. In working intelligently and well together we strengthen ethical relations among ourselves, and this is what Ethical Culture is ultimately about.
This ethical realization leads me to my final observation. And that is that our Ethical Society is made up of genuinely nice people who for the most part like each other, care for one another, and respect each other, as well. Though we might be tempted to dismiss “niceness” as lightweight in the panoply of ethical values and ideals, I would not be too quick in discarding it. If people were simply nicer to each other, we would have a much better world. While many people would prefer to be right than nice, they are not by any means mutually exclusive forms of behavior. The name of the ethical game, as I see it, is balance and integration–which brings me back to where I began: balance and integration are the linchpins of elegance, of beauty.
In the final analysis, we are not perfect. The ideal by definition always lies beyond our grasp. There are always problems to be solved, points of discord to be resolved, frustrations, personal and organizational, to be overcome. But stepping back and taking the long view, I would say, yes, we have created and continue to create a masterpiece–and we have done it together!
May you have a peaceful and restorative summer.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.