The gist of the headline above represents the first of seven principles that lie at the core of my Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. During my congregation’s church service this morning, I delivered the following reflection on the subject.
I have always loved the human pageant. I remember as a young man sitting in coffee shops or on park benches, admiring the passing parade, the ceaseless flux of humanity like the most gentle and warm tides. Lovers strolling slowly by, kids gamboling across the grass like lambs in spring, and over yonder, a spirited soccer game between Ecuadorian and German immigrants.
I look into those wild frightening eyes, and I ask, ‘Is there some scintilla of worth and dignity in there? Is there anything recognizably human and good within that shell of a body and a life gone so horribly wrong?’
It’s easy to feel an almost overwhelming love of humanity in such settings. I behold my brothers and sisters, even though I don’t know any of them personally, pursuing their own version of the good life, in all its simplicity and tenderness and joy.
I remember thinking at the time, “Gosh, will I be doing and feeling this same thing when I’m some ancient age like 60 or 65, an old man on a park bench?” This morning, I’m happy to report that I do! And that the human pageant has continued to reward me, whether I’m in the park or at the beach or behind the serving table at our coffee hour after services, which is a rich setting indeed for feeling the love.
At base, such scenes have always reinforced my pretty much unshakeable faith in the essential goodness of human beings. That for all our neuroses and contradictions and fears, we all want to get with the program and do our part to love and be loved in return, to do good and have good done for us.
Which brings us to this question of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” You might not guess this from everything I have said here, but the first principle is the only one that I have had trouble with over my years as a UU. As our very first, we can assume it has a kind of primacy in our tradition, and here I am, feeling rather wobbly about it.
I trust it’s not grounds for excommunication?
So: what is the source of my doubts? I think they center on evil—plain and simple.
Evil people doing evil things, their wreck of a moral life causing them to abdicate all sense of decency and compassion and regard for their fellow humans. (No, I am not talking about Steve Bannon here…)
Charles Manson is as stark an example as any, I think. I look at that history of his, hear his words, look into those wild frightening eyes, and I ask, “Is there even a scintilla of worth and dignity in there? Is there anything recognizably human and good within that shell of a body and a life gone so horribly wrong?”
And I will admit it’s hard to fathom.
The likes of Manson really test my fidelity to our first principle, and I find myself grappling with nuanced questions in trying to work it out. And I think I’ve come to rest with it here:
That my faith, my default, my approach to every person I meet and observe in my life, has always been that they are essentially good and decent and reflective of my belief in their worth and dignity. That no one is perfect, but everyone is “saved,” in that handy Christian term, by the grace of the loving God who lives within them.
So yes, I do believe in our first principle, and I live out that belief with great passion. And yet…
I think that lives can sometimes go so terribly off the rails, become so twisted in obsessive hatred and a peculiar kind of insanity, that worth and dignity have been vacated, are absent and no longer accessible to that person. And for those of us outside, we knock and we peer in there with our baseline faith in their worth and dignity, but there is no one home, no human response possible to our gesture.
Perhaps this means that our first principle is as much for us as it is for those we extend it to. That it’s an orientation and a faith that will serve us well in this fallen world, even if a given person has lost or forsaken the humanity to receive it.
It’s the same thing we often hear about forgiveness: that we must forgive as much to cleanse our own souls as to absolve others of their transgressions.
In that case, I embrace our first principle as an overarching truth that ultimately serves the purpose of love, of both self and other. Which is quite the point of this whole enterprise and its principles, isn’t it?
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Tarahumara Indian photo by Ted McGrath, Vancouver, BC, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/time-to-look/
Old woman photo by Dmitry Ryzhkov, Moscow, Russia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dmitryzhkov/
Beautiful, Andrew. And, as usual, it brought a tear to my eye, both for the profundity of the principle of which you speak and for the realization of my own shortcomings in being unfailingly able in my life to center upon its validity. I’ve spent a good deal of that life in a determined quest to discover why humanity in general and/or certain individuals in particular, including myself at times, diverge from the loving expression of that principle. Maybe that quest will never end for me while I am in physical form. And yet, I find myself unable to give it up. Perhaps my own determination, or stubbornness some would call it, in that regard expresses my belief in the validity of the principle of which you speak, challenged though it may be in the present circumstances of our physical world.
Knowing that others give serious thought to the conundrum of which you speak is encouraging. Seeking to understand our common weaknesses in our inter-connections through conversations, reading Andrew’s blog, or reading books that address studying Mankind intellectually, emotionally and psychologically may help us to deal with the anxiety and pain that this lesson in spiritual growth is requiring of us. I have been in pain and disappointed lately. So, as a student of life, I read to answer questions, which as you may already know, present more questions. Quest on!
I am supremely happy there is no Charles Manson in my life, but knowing of him and his well publicized evil history, works as a safe, distant subject to ponder. But bring that on home to the homeless woman who screamed obscenities at you outside Burger King and left you shaking. Now, that’s having to deal up close with a person’s worth. Or closer yet when observing two friends or a married couple you know snarking at each other in their control dramas. (How embarrassing to witness this.) Worst pain I have felt is repeatedly being dissed socially for some flaw that could have been discussed in a private and courteous way. Where is the inherent worth and dignity we show to each other, here at home? Being a part of, or observing others relating in thoughtless, knee-jerk reactions is painful and makes an unhappy world. I could change how I feel about Charles Manson and what he did. It might be good for my soul to do so. But the challenge is here and now with us.
Spiritual growth is a challenge, and I find myself to be a slower student than I’d like to be. Merging memory of learning new information with present time awareness doesn’t present every time. Attending to one’s spiritual growth is contributing to ongoing creation, and better yet to improved relations. I hear that it is best to tend to one’s own garden, but I would like to gift a flower. Easy book to read, short, in novel form, “The Celestine Prophesy,” by Redfield. I think it was written in novel form in hopes more would read it; academic or preachy self help not so popular. To those of you who are distinctly intellectual and analytical, please take the beginning esoteric insights bravely. The fourth through sixth insights are the crux that gave me much to explore and understand.
As usual Andrew, a fine piece of work is your gift to us. Thanks.
That’s a great point, Marianne: I thought to really push the matter to its hilt I had to consider absolute evil, but in truth, it’s more relevant and more challenging in everyday circumstances, with everyday people. Wish I’d have thought of that! Would’ve made for a more searching and probably more intensely personal essay. Food for future thought!
So how did it all turn out for your insides and your perspectives on the first principle with that Burger King encounter?
Oh, I wish I could say something profound, or that I reached out and made a difference in her life. Alas, my fear of getting closer to someone irrational and maybe dangerous in some way to me kept me walking straight and fast to my car. Interesting enough, she has shown up in the social hall of our congregation about three times since then. I asked someone if they knew “her story.” It seems she lives alone and frequently forgets to take her meds. I am glad she feels she can make attempts to join our liberal socially responsive group. I can speculate someone has gotten close enough to converse with her and maybe help her out. But, it wasn’t me. Hard to forget the gripping fear that took over my whole body and then the adrenaline surging for a while.
So, here’s the thing….yes, I think she has inherent worth and dignity, still and in spite of her personal troubles. That is an intellectual decision. I don’t think she is evil, not even close. My fear keeps me from any action other than retreat. I do feel pity for her and her troubles but choose to keep a safe distance, not an uncommon handling of the situation, I think.
Terry, I suspect that quest “will never end” for you (nor me), but in the end, it is all in the quest, it seems, because there is no final arrival, no completion, no perfection, in this world. One settles for the perfection of the imperfection, as it were. Shortfall is us!—Our plight, our challenge, our work. (A very good work it is, though…) Thanks for sharing these thoughts. Much appreciated.
Sometimes we are truly moved to extend tolerance and patience and kindness to our fellow humans; those are the easier days.
Sometimes practice and discipline help us when our baser instincts might lead us in another direction. Sometimes the words of others can help form that practice when our hurt, angry selves might choose other responses.
The prayer of St. Francis implores the Lord to make us an instrument of peace, to bring comfort, understanding and love to others.
Expanding on your thoughts of today, Andrew, St. Francis further expounded
“Because it is giving that we receive, and
By forgiving that we are forgiven.”
And in Matthew 25:40 “For inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
And of course there is always the Golden Rule:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
In Buddhist teaching all living things are connected, and extending compassion to others begins by extending compassion to ourselves, sometimes the most difficult task of all.
Drawing on forgiveness and compassion does not mean that we do not act to stop evil, do not act to right wrongs or to challenge deplorable situations, rather that we proceed with the big picture in mind, with a humane and caring outcome in mind, with the courage to confront what needs to be confronted with patience and dedication to find the right way forward. That is truly honoring the inherent worth of each human.
Worthy thoughts for any age, any time, and certainly appropriate right now.
Angela, your point about practice and discipline keeping our baser instincts at bay couldn’t be more true. Anything that’s hard to achieve—a PhD, a pro baseball career, compassion—requires practice and intention and then more practice. Imagine the coach of your Compassion Team saying, “Naw, no need for practice, just get on with it.” You’d have about as much success as a baseball team whose coach tells them the same thing.
And your second-to-last paragraph is particularly relevant today, when liberals (and a lot of conservatives, too) are grappling with that balance of resisting-mightily-but-not-demonizing an opponent who seems uniquely dangerous at this time in our history. Nothing easy about that matter for spiritually minded people. We fail, we get up, we fail again. Life!
The daily discipline and practice of compassion and empathy really strike home here. Much of my 25 year professional career was given to highly visible leadership positions at a small college in a small town. I learned to be “second-guessed” and, at times, demonized for decisions that had to be made and implemented. A long-time colleague once asked me to describe my personal process. The image that came to mind was a container. I replied that my container for empathy and compassion was growing larger with practice and determination. Oh, there was venting behind the scenes with trusted colleagues, to be sure. Yet in the end, the acquired skill of de-personalizing disagreements and hostilities sent in my direction was critical for growth. I am not certain if this gets at the meta question of inherent good in all, but I hope it adds to the conversation of the daily challenges and interruptions that we all face.
Most interesting, Jay. I think applied to our current political situation, we have an extraordinarily thin-skinned president coming in on top of an era that did seem to veer more often than not into highly personal vendettas and intransigence. Neither Mitch McConnell nor Harry Reid were in any danger of challenging for the title of Mr. Personality.
That said, a tour through actual history reveals the good ol’ days were never as good as everyone from the old era remembers them to be. What’s changed, though, I think, is the ubiquitousness of media and the 24/7 news churn. I think it’s amped up the emotional charge and reactiveness of political life by a significant degree. We’re stuck with it, though; there’s no going back. Maybe the current turmoil will create the necessary conditions for something better to come out the other side? Or will human emotional life not adapt fast enough to effectively manage the modern media age?
Thoughtfully framed, Andrew. I fully agree that good ol’ days never were quite the romanticized profile often assigned ( wistfully) to them. Bickering, bitterness, blaming has been the mix all along. Ubiquity of news cycle has certainly amped things up immensely; but nowhere near social, digitized media influence where by “Alt-Facts” can be claimed and accepted. Your last point on human adaptation to modern media age makes me think of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, “Thank You For Being Late.” For those with the time to dive in, it is truly worth the effort as Friedman explores the “acceleration” of forces on many levels, including media, technology, environment, population growth and the interconnectedness of them that is currently ignored by our President. For those unable to take on the book, Friedman artfully presents it at the Institute for Politics at the University of Chicago and hosted by David Axlerod. It can be accessed on YouTube.