Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
from “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot
OPENING STORY: “The Troubled Village” by Simon Henwood
Once there was a village where the people competed with each other for trouble.
“I have more problems than you do.”
“No, you don’t. If only you knew how hard life is for me.”
The longer the list of problems they had, the prouder everyone seemed to become.
By fixing his neighbor’s roof in the middle of the night, Mr. Jones made sure that the Smith family had one less problem to add to its list.
One night, there was a terrible storm. All the people were busy adding to their troubles by pulling off roof tiles and breaking windows, trying to make it look as though the storm had caused all the damage. Suddenly, the most terrible thing imaginable happened; the sort of awful trouble that every villager dreamed of having.
The sky fell in.
Not all of it, of course, but a hole about as big as a duck pond. Everyone gathered around where it had fallen. No one had seen the sky so close before.
One little boy tried to touch a star, and slipped and fell in.
The villagers panicked and, trying to save the little boy, ended up falling in after him.
The last villager only just managed to get a good, firm grasp, and pulled them all to safety.
Now they had to put the sky back up.
Everyone agreed it was too great a problem for one person, so, for the very first time, they all worked together.
Getting the sky up wasn’t too difficult, because it was no heavier than a carpet, but making it stay up was.
No glue or sticky tape would hold it in place.
There was only one thing to do – a large pole was brought and positioned. As one tip of the pole reached the stars, the villagers looked at the other end in dismay.
The pole was two feet short.
From that moment on, each villager took it in turns to hold the pole that propped up the sky, and any other troubles were soon forgotten.
We are the ones building an ethical community. While researching the origins of the African chant, “We Are the Ones,” that we will sing together later this morning, I found the lyrics used in a message from the elders of the Hopi Nation in Arizona, and was again struck by the universality of the words: “We are the ones.” “Know your garden,” the elders went on to say. “Create your community. Be good to each other.” And a saying from the Xhosa of southern Africa expresses well our understanding in Ethical Culture that individuals become fully human only within a community of caring and responsible people. They say, “I am because we are.”
We are a meaning-making species. We try to make sense out of life, to understand why we are alive and to what purpose. We use all manner of things to help us: human constructs like art, music and poetry; storytelling, philosophy and religion. We look to nature for inspiration and to find our place in it. We turn to each other for love and spiritual connection. Then we weave them all together into an organic fabric, a brilliant tapestry of experience. The Ethical Manifold is a human construct, an organizing ideal, a religious image. It holds us as individuals in blessed relationship with each other and the whole of community that is created by the interaction of our unique differences.
From his founding address in 1876, Felix Adler expressed both the tension of this new ethical religion and its resolution: diversity in the creed and unanimity in the deed. As individuals, we would bring our own personal beliefs into a democratic community where we would work together to make this world a better place. His religious vision can be summed up as:
to each of us an attribution of worth;
from each of us our unique contribution; and
for all of us a community of mutual respect, justice, and care.
Religion, at its best, is counter-cultural: it reaches beyond the immediate to touch something timeless. To many people, Ethical Culture is also counterintuitive because it does not require a dogma explaining the beginning and end of days. It is a practical, not a theoretical, religion whose faith is in the power of humanity to learn and grow from experience and, most importantly, to love and care for one another. That faith is sorely tested to be sure; sometimes there is scarce evidence for it. Still, it is an ideal that we can imagine in our minds and hearts and we can make real in the living of our lives.
In exploring this subject with you this morning, I plan to follow the advice of Felix Adler and start with my own experience. “I must find out what I mean, and then I shall know what the world means,” wrote Adler. “The key of the secret is in my own bosom.” We start from a moral consciousness, and we use it to give voice to our longings: to belong to something greater, to make a difference in the world, to be loved.
You will each have your own experiences. Perhaps we will find that we share some of them; we do, after all, share a common humanity. But there will also be differences, because we are also unique. Then we’ll take a look at the theory and practice of community, and conclude with some thoughts about how to make it all work.
COMMUNITY in Theory and in Practice
My husband Glenn and I lived together for a number of years after graduating from college. We worked full-time and attended graduate school, so we really didn’t see much of each other. Then one day we thought it might be nice to get married. Actually, we thought it might be nice to take a vacation, so why not also make it a honeymoon. Glenn was a lawyer by then so he was thinking in legal terms, but I was thinking in terms of community. I felt then, and I assume it to be true for every couple who asks me to officiate at a wedding, that we were already married. We had already made a commitment to each other. What remained was to make a public declaration, witnessed by others, solemnized, notarized and filed with the City Clerk. Where before we had interacted in society as individuals, now we would also be recognized as a couple, an altogether different and unique social entity. One definition of “community” is “a group of two or more people who have been able to accept and transcend their differences regardless of the diversity of their backgrounds.” Glenn was raised in a Jewish family, and I in a Catholic one. So I was thinking about community.
Community comes in all sizes, shapes and varieties. We know this from our own experiences. It can refer to a specific group of people or it can describe a quality of relationship based on certain values and principles. We can easily count the communities to which we belong and with which we interact: family and friends; professional, social and residential groups; school, PTA and sports teams, and so on. Communities are webs of social relations that embrace shared meanings and values. They are nested, each within a more encompassing one, and often intersect with one another. They elicit different responses from us, confer different rights and demand different responsibilities.
I didn’t know that I was looking for a religious community when Glenn and I decided to marry. I assumed that none existed that wouldn’t require me to make philosophical, intellectual and emotional compromises that I wasn’t prepared to make. But I wanted our commitment to mean something more than the license it was written on, to transcend a legally binding social contract, and I wanted Glenn to agree with me that this was important. So it came to pass that after having researched Ethical Culture in the local library, and finding nothing in our reading to dissuade us, we met with the Leader of the Brooklyn Society to discuss our wedding plans.
I won’t bore you with the details of the ceremony, but the Leader promised there would be no dry eye in the house, and he delivered. Why? Because he listened to us and honored us by faithfully communicating to our family and friends who we were and what we valued, by speaking to our shared meaning of marriage and commitment. In the twenty-two years since our wedding, I have attended and officiated at many Ethical Culture ceremonies: weddings, memorials, baby namings. Perhaps you have, too. Far more people have participated in Ethical Culture ceremonies than have ever become members of our societies. What we do for them, what we help them to do, is relate better and more meaningfully in whatever communities they belong. We make community explicit for couples who may fall outside of established communities. I refer to the ceremony community that exists at that moment, not as an abstraction, but as something very real and powerful in their lives. Every ceremony is unique, because every person and every relationship is unique, and because the process is designed to elicit the best, that is, that distinctive excellence in each person that is vital to share with the human community.
Glenn and I didn’t truly belong to the Brooklyn Ethical Society until we had children. Every community has different entry points, and ours was the Sunday School. Glenn felt confident that his sterling example was enough to raise any child; I thought we could use some help. Help is what the people in “The Troubled Village” needed. They didn’t know it until the sky fell in, but they needed it long before that. They acted like isolated, unconnected units, valuing only the problems by which they could compete with one another. Pride, that ancient sin, had them in its grip. Then the sky fell in, and a child reaching for a star fell in after it. It was then that the villagers became a community. It was then that the gap between individuation and intimacy was bridged. It was then that they all pulled themselves to safety.
We are familiar with the phenomenon that emerges between individuals during a crisis. In such situations, people tend to drop their pretenses, overcome obstacles, and reach out to help one another. In the process, they find surprising strength, acceptance and support. We organize ourselves into communities to help each other, to do a job that is too big for any one of us alone. What else is community for? Not long ago I listened to someone who was in great pain. “What does it all mean?” she asked. “There must be something more. I do all the right things. I have a good job, family, friends. I volunteer at a soup kitchen. I go out. I’m dating a nice guy right now. But I still feel unconnected, sad, lonely.” I hear that a lot. Disconnectedness, sadness, loneliness: these seem to be the spiritual pains of our age.
At the end of World War I, Felix Adler identified three spiritual pains. They were: “the sense of the insignificance of man in this wide universe,” our feeling of powerlessness to help the “multitudes of our fellow beings,” and “the intolerable strain of the divided conscience,” by which he meant our desire to make our lives “all of a piece,” to achieve consistency in our private and public conduct. Not so very different from what many of us feel today. What was needed, he felt, was “the reconstruction of the spiritual ideal,” and he suggested the following.
To relieve the pain of our sense of “utter nothingness,” we must exercise self-knowledge; be a “witness of the infinite striking into the finite world” by embracing our spiritual nature which gives us “a unique place in the scheme of things.” Powerless in the face of overwhelming misery? Human worth and dignity demand that we work to improve the conditions under which people live, while not treating them as victims or shirking the ethical issues involved. Finally, to relieve a divided conscience, we need one ethical principle that runs “like a golden thread through all human relations,” a rule of conduct that embraces the public as well as the private life: “Seek to elicit the best in others, and thereby you will bring to light the best that is in yourself.”
Now I find this helpful (if somewhat abstract), but somehow I felt that Adler’s advice was not what this woman needed to hear. In fact, she didn’t need to hear anything right then; she needed to be heard, listened to, understood. I had no answers for her, but I knew she was not alone, that we all feel that way at times and look for relief in many ways. She had to find her own answers, but I could invite her into a community of people who are also struggling with life’s pains. A community that could hold, soothe, challenge, lift up, and heal. What Ethical Culture can offer the world, what is central to our belief, is the call to build authentic community.
Arthur Dobrin, Leader Emeritus at the Long Island Society puts it this way: “Touch, there is no more.” Community is not a virtue, but an experience, a project wherein we touch each other’s spiritual pain, feel loved and nurtured, and are challenged to become our own best selves in connection with others. Ethical community is an intentional and deliberate gathering of individuals who seek to explore through a celebration of our uniquenesses the common ground through which we are able to touch upon the fullness and meaningfulness of life. Having experienced this process, we are then able to re-emerge into our individual selves somehow more connected to the worth that unites us all. “Our task,” says Arthur, “is to take the tragic elements, the unjust elements of life and transform them into joyous, whole and mature responses.” We can, when we learn and practice the necessary skills, build caring communities of mutual support and offer possibilities for personal growth and moral development. We can help each other center on life’s deepest realities. We can heal something in ourselves by caring for others.
I thought a lot after listening to this woman about the difference between choosing and creating. We choose some things, but we create others. We choose things and actions: I choose to do this or that, go this way or that, have this thing or that. But we make a life; it’s a process, a series of creative acts. In an ethical community, we can make a life with others that has meaning. We can find the balance between individual rights and social responsibilities. We can give voice to profound moral concerns. But I’m not going to kid you: it’s hard work. Building community is no bed of roses. In fact, it’s when the rubber hits the road that we sometimes feel like walking away. A Catholic theologian, Henry Nouwen, once said that community is where the person we least want to be with always shows up. My mother, a lifelong, third-generation member of St. Anne’s Church in a small town upstate often tells me about the trials and tribulations of parish life. In that there is little difference between communities. Who puts up the coffee after services is a universal problem. Which committee supplied the milk and sugar, and which one commandeered it on Sunday is cause for tension in any religious meeting house. Many communal ventures have foundered over who takes out the garbage.
But we make a commitment to stay. I like to read an essay by Wendell Berry when I officiate at weddings, because he addresses the communal nature of marriage. It applies to all communities. “What you alone think it ought to be,” Berry writes, “it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you – and marriage, time, life, history and the world – will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.” Authentic community building is expressed in different ways and with different emphases, depending upon where it is used, but it has several common ingredients. These include diversity and genuine acceptance, active listening and interactive communication, openness, honesty, feedback and evaluation, conflict resolution, forgiveness and reconciliation. We can do this, and we must do this, because we are the ones building an ethical community.
“One little boy tried to touch a star, and slipped and fell in.” Remember that from the story? It was what transformed a group of individuals into a community. I read another kind of story in the Atlantic Monthly called “The Apocalypse of Adolescence.” Ron Powers explored the recent spate of crimes committed by young people in a setting their parents thought was idyllic. “According to a survey conducted in 1995, 41 percent of the U.S. population would eventually like to move to a small town or rural area. . . [T]he children, being the point of it all, [were] expected to mature smoothly into thoughtful, self-reliant adults, at peace with themselves and with the world.” And for many, that was indeed the case, but something went horribly wrong for others. From 1995 to 1996, Vermont’s jails absorbed a 600 percent increase in gang-member inmates. “. . . Few Vermonters,” writes Powers, “were inclined to ask a question that their state’s communal ethos should have rendered inescapable: What had made the gangs so attractive to their children in the first place? Few paid attention to a common explanation offered by local kids, on the rare occasions when they were asked: they saw the gangs as a replacement for something missing in their lives – namely, a community that satisfied their longings for worth-proving ritual, meaningful action in the service of a cause, and psychological intimacy.”
We create community. Some of us are lucky enough to choose where we live, but a setting, no matter how ideal, is no substitute for the work involved in building an ethical community together. Children desire and need a sense of self-worth, and we can fulfill that desire, answer that need by respectfully including them in community life. We do them, and ourselves, a great disservice when we exclude them. They are our future, but they also challenge us in the present to model for them moral conduct.
In conclusion, last year I marched with one of my communities, the Brooklyn Women’s Chorus, across the Brooklyn Bridge and up to Washington Square Park for a peace vigil there. We sang “Peace Salaam Shalom,” a song written by Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow, before a crowd of thousands. Among the many speakers was a young Cambodian woman. Her family had been killed during the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, and she had been a child soldier until rescued and sent to live with a family in (guess where) Vermont. “When you invest in war,” she said, “you get terror. When you invest in people, you get peace.” I was overwhelmed by her simple and sincere eloquence. I went home and looked up an article I had clipped from the NY Times about another Cambodian, Vann Nath, an artist who is one of just seven people who survived a torture house where at least 14,000 people were sent to their deaths. He survived because he had the talent to paint a portrait of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader.
“I look and I wonder if there is life on other planets and what it’s like,” he said. “Do they live like us? Do they suffer the way we do? Sometimes I think that if their lives are different from ours, if they don’t have the suffering that we have – I think to myself that it must be really great to live on one of those planets.”
And as I reread the article and thought about the young woman and remembered singing with my friends, I felt more strongly than ever that we must be the ones to build ethical community. Here and now, on this planet, in this garden. Ethics starts with a choice, exercised in an environment of free will, a choice to attribute to every individual unique, inviolable, and irreplaceable worth. Then we act so as to elicit the best from each other, and thereby in ourselves. Together we create an ethical culture by treating people as ends in themselves, not the means to some end of our own or others’ designs – and by encouraging their, and thereby our, full capacity for goodness. We experience spirituality in our relatedness to humanity, nature and our ideals, knowing that life is a gift of nature to be cherished and revered and shared.
So I close with these universal words: I am because we are. We are the ones. Know your garden. Create your community. Be good to each other.
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
from “Low Road” by Marge Piercy