Category Archives: stories

We Are Not Alone

Jesuit priest and author James Martin recently said in an interview that we as a culture have sanitized the Christmas story. This is worth paying close attention to during this current Christmas season which seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe,, dealing with a controversial Presidential election, and the usual jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point. Its text is focused on yesterday’s gospel from Matthew, a story that you will definitely not see represented in anyone’s creche or on anyone’s front lawn.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.

What’s Next?

As a Christmas present to each other, Jeanne and I purchased our first HD television a few weeks ago–one equipped with access to Amazon, Netflix, and multiple other sites I have not had time to explore. As I wandered through Amazon offerings (I’ve been a “Prime” member for years), I encountered all seven seasons of “The West Wing,” probably my favorite television show of all time. We already own all seven seasons of the show in DVD, so this is a bit of overkill, but who could have enough of the best President ever, especially given our current executive office prospects?

I love all of the ten or so main characters from “The West Wing,” none more than President Josiah Bartlet himself. “The West Wing” premiered in September of 1999, bumper stickerjust a few weeks before the presidential election that eventually brought George W. Bush to the White House. During the two terms of the Bush presidency Jeanne and I had a Don’t blame me—I voted for Bartlet bumper sticker on our car. I think I’ll order a new one for the next four years. President Bartlet had Bill Clinton’s charisma and political savvy joined with the moral fiber of Jimmy Carter—what was not to like (especially for liberals and idealists)?

A typical episode portrayed the controlled chaos of a day or a few days in the White House, with several scenes each week taking place in the Oval Office itself. As Bartlet and his ever-present entourage move swiftly from issue to issue and one impending disaster to another, they multi-task with endless energy and Olympian ability. As one brush fire appears to have been temporarily stamped out and another awaits attention, there is no time to take a few extra breaths or reflect before pressing forward. bartlet entourage“What’s next?” the president typically would ask Leo, Toby, Sam, Josh, C.J., Charlie, General Fitzwallace, Mrs. Landingham, or whoever happened to be standing next to him. No time for savoring victories or regretting failures—there’s always more shit to get done.

I completely understand the energy of “What’s Next?” and was plugged into it for just about all of the eight years out of the last ten that I was an administrator on campus, first as chair of my department, then as director of a large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores. Teaching four classes per semester, usually with three separate preparations, is more than a full-time job in itself; adding the administrative tasks on top frequently pushed me close to the point of “I can’t do this.” Whats nextBut I did, in large part because I learned to be ultra-organized, looking at my calendar each morning to prioritize each of the dozen Whack-a-Moles that promised to pop up over the following hours, and seldom diverging from that prioritization. In service to my overall “What’s Next?” attitude I had a three page, single-spaced “Important Dates” document for the semester taped on the wall next to my computer just to remind me that things keep coming and disaster awaits those who don’t keep up. Rigorous organization, energy always directed forward, never looking back—these are necessary features of the “get it done” attitude of American success. And it’s no way to live a life.

As I described in my blog post a week ago, I learned during my Spring 2009 sabbatical semester that focus, centeredness and peace are available in the midst of the most manic schedule because I carry a space in which those welcome things live everywhere I go.

Clouds of Glory

I identified this space as the place where the divine in me hangs out, agreeing with C of genoaCatherine of Genoa that “my deepest me is God.” I also began to learn how to access that space deliberately by directing my attention properly. This new awareness and skill served me well during my four years as program director that began a year later—when I remembered to pay attention and make use of it. My mantra coming out of sabbatical was from Psalm 131—“Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace”—something I intended to use as the screen saver on my computer and to frame on my office wall when I returned to campus. But I did neither one; I was on my computer so much that it wouldn’t have mattered what I had on my screen saver. I established the practice of reading the Psalms from the daily lectionary every morning, a habit that served me well in terms of starting the day off in the right place. Get it doneBut the vortex of “What’s Next?” and “Get It Done” frequently sucked me in by the middle of the morning, swamping my space of intentionality and attention before I was aware of what had happened.

Away from work, I have done a better job over the past few years of avoiding the “What’s Next?” syndrome, but I still have to be very conscious and attentive to escape the guilt that often is paired with “doing nothing.” The key is to reject the nagging idea that one’s value and space on this planet has to be earned on a daily basis by what one does. We were talking about this not long ago in a monthly discussion group that I lead at church; one of the participants observed that there is not just a point about human psychology to be made here. It is not only good for a person’s mental and emotional well-being to find internal spaces of peace and quietness as resources for addressing a world that is anything but peaceful and quiet, but these also appear to be the very spaces where direct connections to what is greater than us are made. Tmustard seedhere are all sorts of theological reasons to conclude that what I do, my “works,” are not the key to a healthy relationship with the divine, but the authors of scripture have something deeper than right belief in mind when they continually emphasize the importance of stillness and quietness when seeking God. The divine is born in us as a tiny seed that is nurtured not by manic activity, but by patience, daily attention, and perpetual care. It is very challenging to be still when everything around us screams that time is of the essence and must not be wasted. God is said not to be a respecter of persons; God is most definitely not a respecter of our schedules.

My New Year’s resolution is committing myself to the retooling and honing of my practices of attentiveness, silence and peace. I find that in spite of my regular failure to access my core of centeredness over the past few years since I first became aware of its existence, my inner attunement to it has become stronger without my even being aware. thin placesIt takes less time to get there than it used to—like water seeping through a rock, the wall between outer demands and inner strength has become one of those “thin places” that various writers love to ruminate about. Or at least thinner—it’s always a work in progress. My hope for the New Year is that each of you find your own thin places. The places where the divine is always waiting to say “hello.”

Who Comes This Night?

Aleppo, Russians tampering with our election, a sharply polarized country, general mistrust in all sort of institutions, a truck driving into holiday celebrators in Berlin—the clashing of our world with the Christmas season has never been more dissonant. In his lovely holiday song “Who Comes This Night?’, James Taylor asks some very pressing questions:

Who sends this song upon the air
To ease the soul that’s aching?
To still the cry of deep despair
And heal the heart that’s breaking?

If there was ever a time when accumulated layers of consumerism and tradition needed to be peeled back from the Christmas narrative to reveal what lies beneath, it is now.

Christmas movies are a big deal at my house. Jeanne goes for the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th  Street,” “The Bishop’s Wife,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and (her favorite) “White Christmas.” Those are all fine (except “White Christmas,” which I can take or leave), but I tend to favor more recent ones, like “The Holiday,” “Love, Actually,” and (my favorite) “The Nativity Story.” “The Nativity Story” presents a remarkably straightforward, hence beautiful, rendition of the birth of Jesus narratives. All of the standard elements are there—Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wise men at the manger, angels in appropriate places saying appropriate things, along with a particularly creepy father and son team of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas.

These standard elements, though, arise from a conflation of gospel texts. The authors of Mark and John apparently didn’t think the circumstances of Jesus’ birth important enough to even report on, while the authors of Matthew and Luke construct their stories from “cherry-picked” details. Luke does not mention the wise men or the star, but has angels singing to shepherds, who then visit Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Matthew has no worshipping shepherds or even a manger, but wise men following a star visit the holy family in a house, probably in Nazareth, sometime after Jesus’ birth. Throw in Santa and some reindeer, and you’d get the usual front lawn decorations for the holiday season.

So where lies the truth? A friend, who recently passed away, tended to be rather definitive in his pronouncements. Once at lunch he said that “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No? And if you say ‘let me think about it,’ that’s the same as saying No!” This was not directed at me specifically—he was just drawing a line in the sand, as those of us who knew and loved him expected him to do. But I think I’m in trouble. Because not only am I not sure about whether my answer to his question is “yes,” “no,” “let me think about it,” or even “which stories are you referring to?”—I’m inclined to say that “it doesn’t matter.” Our lives are built from stories that we embrace and own as ours—this story is one of the best. As I reported in this blog recently, a student of mine once said that even if it could be proven that Jesus never existed, she would “still be a Christian, because being a Christian makes me a better person than I would be if I wasn’t.” That’s a good start—the measure of one’s faith is what impact it has in real time on the life being lived.

Meister Eckhart once said that the Incarnation is something that happens within us, that the nativity story is the story of the continuing union of the Spirit of God with individual, fleshly human beings. But then Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, was fortunate to escape being burned at the stake, and died in obscurity. No wonder I resonate with his insight. At the climatic manger scene in “The Nativity Story,” the gold-bearing wise man Melchior, who looks amazingly like a colleague and friend of mine in the history department, gazes at the baby and says “God made into flesh.” The message of Christmas cuts across every one of the boundaries that we spend so much time drawing and protecting, for it tells us that the human and the divine belong together and that the only way that God gets into the world is in human form. That’s you. That’s me. That’s us.

The heart and soul of Christianity is remarkable both in its simplicity and its iconoclasm. God made into flesh. Remarkably small. Disturbingly fragile. Completely mysterious. And utterly true.

Merry Christmas

Who Is Their God?

I recklessly thought that if something could save this election, it would be the faithfulness of Christian followers on a spiritual journey of seeing creation as God does – worth fighting for. Christians would be the ones exercising their witness in order to defeat a whiteness that does not care whom it has to destroy on its path towards power, and ultimately toward a perverse kind of deification . . . God’s followers are supposed to rebel against this idolatrous notion. I hoped that most white Christians would resist this idolatry, that they would refuse to join their white identities with the ideology of whiteness. I was wrong. oredeinOluwatomisim Oredein, “White Christianity, and How Hope Was Wrong”

Late in the evening of Election Day, as Jeanne and I watched a slow-motion train wreck unfolding before our eyes, the results of exit polls kept reminding us of which demographic was responsible, despite virtually every poll running up to the election, for what appeared to be happening. “I’m really getting tired of white people,” I said. Nothing that has happened over the days since has changed my mind. But there’s one particular subset of my skin-tone demographic that I particularly am confused by. White Christians.

Over the past many months, I have occasionally written on this blog and social media outlets about my confusion as to why evangelical Christians were supporting Donald Trump in large numbers. Truth be told, though, I treated it as first a humorous, then a puzzling phenomenon, but never seriously thought it would be ultimately more than a curiosity and a footnote to this strangest and nastiest of campaigns. But upon learning in the aftermath of the election that more than eighty percent of self-identified white evangelical Christians voted for the President-elect, I find myself suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance and general sadness.dissonance

Paragraphs such as the following from an article a few days ago in The Washington Post don’t help:

In the age of Trump, what is a Christian?

“It really makes you feel great to be a Christian,” one person told The Washington Post. “I think Christians took a big stand this time and said we’re going to stand up for our faith,” said a second. Referring to Trump, a third said, “I feel like we actually have an advocate now in the White House.”

Perhaps as a Christian I should not admit this, but everyone time I read or hear something like this, I have a serious WTF?!?!? moment. wtfThe problem is that I know the evangelical Christian world intimately. I was raised in it, the foundations of my faith and my moral code were laid in it, and many members of my family whom I love are still squarely in the middle of it. Although for various important reasons I have not placed the adjective “evangelical” in front of my Christian commitment for decades, I have been regularly grateful for much that I learned about my faith, about scripture, and about myself under the tutelage of conservative, evangelical Christianity. But what I learned did not include xenophobia, racism, misogyny, sexual abuse, boorishness, or building walls. I must profess that I am thoroughly and profoundly confused.

I was reminded when reading a similar article in The New York Times a couple of days ago of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” a text that I used to teach frequently toward the end of the final semester of my college’s four-semester “Development of Western Civilization” course that I regularly participate in.king From an Alabama prison cell, Dr. King wrote that when he was drafted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Ala., he believed that the white Christian church would support him. Instead, he discovered some white ministers were outright opponents; others were “more cautious than courageous and . . . remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” In the face of blatant racial and economic injustice, King expressed disappointment at seeing white church leaders “stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” He spoke of travelling throughout the South and looking its “beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward . . .     Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?’”

I have wondered the same things many times over the years, but never as frequently as during the past two weeks. I understand the various reasons why people might have voted for the President-elect, although I think their choice is one that they and our country will soon bitterly regret. But packaging such a vote as a resounding victory for Christian belief and commitment not only baffles me—it offends me. I have always believed that the Christian faith is a large tent. It must be if someone like me can accurately call himself a Christian. But I’m not sure that any tent is large enough to cover both a person who believes our President-elect is a God-given answer to prayer and me. If the President-elect is truly a standard-bearer for how the Christian faith is to look in practice, count me out. I want nothing to do with it. liberalBut because I am convinced that this is not the case, and since—as I often say—I am a liberal because I am a Christian, I continue to believe that Jesus does not call us to exclude everyone but those most like us, does not call us to build walls, and would have us neither disrespect women nor mock persons with disabilities.

In an opinion piece written less than a week after the election, the former editor of the largest evangelical Christian publication in the nation wrote the following:

I was an evangelical magazine editor, but now I can’t defend my evangelical community.ct

The night that Donald Trump was elected president, I got very little sleep. Surely the wine I sipped as a wave of red swept from east to west across that horrible, televised electoral map didn’t help. But I managed to have one vivid dream. In it, I’m standing on a stage in a stadium full of fellow Christians. And I’m telling them that they voted for the wrong candidate, and that Trump’s presidency will prove to be a grave mistake.

Wednesday greeted me as it did half the voting population, with waves of grief. But since then, the grief has turned into a more complex emotion — something like soul abandonment.

I pray for healing, clarity and enlightenment for persons of all faiths, as well as those of no faith, as we seek our ways forward.

The Times They Are A-changin’

spring forwardI’m going out on a limb here—way out. I like time changes. This year Daylight Savings time began on March 13, shifting the clock to provide an extra hour of light in the evening and ended ten days ago on November 6, with the shift providing an extra hour of light in the morning. I have lived most of my life in the northern latitudes where, once DST ends and we change to standard time, it starts getting dark before 5:00, with nightfall earlier each day as we inch toward the winter solstice. I like that. I like falling back (and the extra hour of sleep once a year) and also, for entirely different reasons, I appreciate springing forward on the night DST begins (even though I lose an hour of sleep that night), because it is the harbinger of summer evenings when it will be light until close to 10:00. Perhaps because I come from stoic Swedish stock, swedish chefI don’t recall anyone in my family or our friends complaining about DST in my youth—it’s just something that happened, sometimes producing humorous situations such as the people who showed up for Easter Sunday services two hours late one year when the change to DST happened to fall on Easter; they turned their clocks back an hour instead of ahead. Spring forward and fall back, morons!

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed a marked spike compared to previous years in the number of people complaining about DST and the inconvenience of twice-per-year hourly shifts. The complaints haven’t been just about inconvenience or because someone forgot and was an hour early for a meeting or for church—for the first time I learned that for some people the spring and fall time changes are among the most disruptive events of the year. After reading one person proclaim that “DST is total bullshit” and another post that “It’s the twice-yearly jet lag and sleep disruption that is so hateful,” I thought that perhaps a voice of reason needed to inserted into the discussion. Minor sleep disruption, yes (although one extra hour of sleep is hardly disruptive), but jet lag? Hateful?What, do you get jet lag flying from New York to Chicago? Please. So I innocently posted “jet lagTo be honest, I’ve never understood how a mere one hour difference can be such a source of disruption, dismay, and angst for so many people.” Boy, was that a mistake.

In short order I was informed that if I was not “physically afflicted” by the time change, I was not only lucky but also was “very rare.” Now I have no problem with being very rare (when I ate beef, that’s how I ordered my steak), but in this case I got the impression I was being called “very rare” as in “mutant” or “non-human.” I responded that I have an extensive network of family and friends (a bit of an exaggeration) and knew of only two who claimed to be bothered in any way by one-hour time changes, to which I received “Whereas I have only a couple who claim they don’t.” One of us is clearly full of shit—and it was on.

I posted the following on my timeline: A quick informal poll for my Facebook acquaintances–how many of you suffer from sleep deprivation, jet lag-like symptoms, or other such maladies because of the twice per year time changes? I don’t, but from what I read and hear many people do. How about you?

And as is so often the case with virtually any issue that people can disagree on, about 45 or 50 acquaintances split right down the middle. There are those like me, who not only suffer no negative effects from DST changes but also suspect that those who do are exaggerating, suffering from psychosomatic symptoms, or just like to whine. dog and childThen there are the other half who not only suffer various symptoms from DST changes but who also get quite defensive when someone reveals that this is not a universal affliction. One person wrote that “some people have small children and dogs,” implying that insensitive persons such as I should have some sympathy for persons such as she who have a houseful of DST-sufferers of various species (I wonder about how fish or turtles would do in her house). I probably did not help by responding “Of course—I have had two small children and now have three dogs, none of whom were ever effected.”

I’m sure that most everyone has had such conversations about DST as well as other issues that sharply divide human beings from one another, from politics to food preferences. For instance, a guy on Facebook recently was pissed at people piling on with negative comments about fruitcake. fruitcakeApparently fruitcake is one of his most pleasant childhood holiday memories, and people such as I promulgating negative stereotypes about fruitcake are shitting on his youth. Facebook is wonderful for generating such intractable and endless arguments, because often the people communicating have never met and know nothing about each other beyond the sound bites and bumper sticker pronouncements that are the heart and soul of social media.

There is a greater truth in play here—each of us is driven by the default assumption that our preferences, tastes, and experiences are the default setting for human normality. protagorasTo slightly paraphrase Protagoras, each of us believes that “I am the measure of all things.” Other human beings are normal to the extent that they appreciate what I like and reject what I dislike. Hence the need for real human interaction rather than colliding sound bites—there is no better corrective to “I am the measure of all things” than to find out on a regular basis that one person’s absolute is another person’s “whatever” and that my “no brainer” and “go to” in any area of experience whatsoever is something that has never even risen to the next person’s “Top 1000” things in importance.

Although I do not suffer from DST-related symptoms and do not understand those who do, I admit that one thing about DST has become more difficult in my adulthood than when I was a child—adjusting the clocks. Digital time pieces are far more challenging to move forward or back an hour than good old non-digital watches and clocks. I still puzzle for several minutes twice per year trying to remember how to change the time on the microwave and stove, and forget about the Bose machine. Our Bose machine downstairs tells time accurately six months of the year—the rest of the time it is an hour fast.

Life After Tuesday

facebook-friendA Facebook friend, who has helped the traffic on this blog increase exponentially over the past few weeks by sharing my posts on various Facebook pages that she administers, challenged me in a Facebook message the other day:

If you don’t already have your topics set for the next week, I’d love to see something that addresses the effect that this election time is having on relationships—family and friends—and, maybe how to move through and past it . . . to “healing.”

I responded that my posts for the coming week were written and scheduled, but I would take a shot at something shortly after the election. It has turned out to be one of the most challenging posts to write of the hundreds I’ve posted here over the past four-plus years, for reasons I’ll describe below. t-v-hBut it strikes me that it is worthwhile for all of us to think today—the day before the election that will (hopefully) put an end to one of the nastiest and most divisive Presidential campaigns in American history (certainly in my lifetime)—about how we will move forward after tomorrow. Regardless of the result in tomorrow’s presidential vote, more than forty percent of those who voted will believe that voters have made a horrible mistake, our country is swirling its way down the drain, and life as we have known it will not continue. But believe it or not, no matter who is elected President tomorrow, the apocalypse will not be triggered, Wednesday will dawn, and we will have to figure out what to do next. Good luck to us.

The philosophy department on my campus, of which I have been a member for twenty-two years (and which I chaired from 2004-08), has over the past two or three years earned a college-wide reputation for being one of the most dysfunctional departments on campus (only one or two other departments are serious competitors with my department for the title). Three weeks ago our dysfunction was on full display in an important meeting—without revealing confidential matters, I have told various people since then that the fault lines at the meeting were so deep that something like the following was regularly on display, at least by some colleagues:idiot “If you don’t agree with me, then you either didn’t take the time to become aware of the facts, you are stupid, or you are immoral.” No fourth option, such as “we have all done our homework, are familiar with the facts, have made a principled decision, and we just happen to disagree,” seemed to be available. I am always dismayed by such “discussions,” believing that the prohibited fourth option often happens to be the truth. But in thinking about that meeting, I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the almost-completed Presidential campaign, I have often found myself thinking of those persons likely to vote for the major candidate other than the one I will vote for tomorrow in precisely the same ways as were on display at the recent department meeting: If you vote for that “other person,” you must either be ignorant, a moron, or dangerously lacking in moral principles.

I doubt that I am alone in having effectively constructed a political echo chamber over the past several months in which I hear only voices that I want to hear. I only listen to radio and television stations likely to lean toward my own political and social beliefs and commitments. When such stations, in the interest of “balance,” include voices from the other side of things, I mute the machine or turn it off. When my candidate is having a good week or the opponent is not, I’ve been known to watch or listen to 2-3 straight hours of talking heads on my preferred stations. But when my candidate has a bad week or stumbles in some way, game-showsI would rather watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” than news analysis. My 650+ Facebook acquaintances have been carefully culled on several occasions to weed out persons who might have the audacity to post materials and arguments supporting the other side. It’s not just that I don’t want to hear arguments intended to challenge my own—I know that such arguments are out there and I reject them out of hand. It’s also that listening to more than a minute or so of representatives of that other candidate’s perspectives literally starts making me ill. I am one of those people who has said that if my candidate’s opponent wins, we’re moving to Canada. Enough of this shit.

I should know better than this. The other day in my General Ethics class, I reminded my students of a passage from an interview that was part of the day’s assignment. Toward the end of the interview, the interviewee said that “A sense of responsibility about one’s beliefs, a willingness to defend them if challenged, and a willingness to listen to the reasons given by others is one of the guiding ideals of a civil society.” The interview focused on the often fraught dynamic between atheism and theism, but the interviewee’s comments have direct application to our lives as citizens of a democracy. As we discussed the interview and accompanying article, I reminded my students that when someone presents an argument whose conclusion is something you disagree with strongly, the proper response is not “that person is an idiot,” or, slightly more charitably but just as illogically, disagree“I disagree, therefore that person is wrong.” In philosophy, you have to earn the right to have an opinion, I often tell my students—and earning the right to an opinion involves careful reasoning, argumentation, and above all cultivating the ability to listen, even to those with whom you disagree most strongly. But I, along with just about everyone else during our current political cycle, have been doing none of this. Consequently, we no longer have a civil society.

No matter how things turn out tomorrow, the apocalypse will not happen, the sun will rise on Wednesday morning entirely oblivious to what happened on Tuesday, and we will all be faced with a huge question: Now what? Forget the ruptures in our national fabric; for many Americans, the problems are personal. This election has divided friends and families in ways that might seem impossible to repair. civil-war-brothersI heard someone the other day liken the problem to members of the same family fighting on opposite sides during the Civil War a century and a half ago. That’s an extreme comparison, but it is difficult to imagine these divisions healing with the simple passage of time. Truth be told, I’m not sure that I’m ready to do my part in helping with that healing. I don’t even want to imagine the feeling in my house if our candidate does not win tomorrow. If our candidate does win, self-satisfaction and relief may well overwhelm concerns about healing for a while. But there will be life after Tuesday–and I do have a recent personal example of how people with very different convictions can coexist in peace and love.

Earlier this year, Jeanne and I had the opportunity to spend some time with my cousins and their families for the first time in many years. They know us to be dedicated liberals and we know them to be committed conservatives—the-cousinsthese differences spread across social policies, politics, and religion. Yet a wonderful time was had by all, and nary a discouraging or inflammatory word was heard.When we left to head for home, as he helped me put our luggage in the car my cousin said, “This is amazing—you’re a liberal, I’m a conservative, and yet we haven’t argued once.” We gave each other virtual high-fives over that amazing development. How did we manage to spend several evenings together without spouting incompatible talking points? Not simply by avoiding minefield conversations by talking about the weather and sports (although we did talk about both of those on occasion). We had a wonderful time because we continually sought out what we share in common—histories, faith, pets, kids, and more. We shared decades of stories, many of which were new to some of those present, talked about common interests, and were reminded that what truly connects human beings together is far more important, with the long-term in view, than what divides us.

I need—we all need—to remember this as we look forward to our shared lives past Tuesday. Don’t define people by what they post on social media. important-issuesDon’t assume you know anything about someone simply because you discover that they do not share all of your most important beliefs. Don’t get me wrong—this is going to be very difficult for all of us. It’s not as if the issues that have divided our country so sharply are unimportant; they are crucially important. But even more crucially important is our shared humanity and the fact that we all must find ways to share our nation, our communities, our circle of friends, and our families while believing very differently on issues that matter. Perhaps a good place to start is to replace the time spent on social media and listening to radio or television analysis with spending time in the company of real human beings. We might be amazed to discover how much we share in common.

Canine Ethics

Over the years I have developed dozens of strategies for getting students to participate in class discussions; the most reliable technique undoubtedly is to get them talking about their pets. Case in point: A couple of classes ago the article for the day for my ethics classes was by biologist Frans de Waal; frans-de-waalhis decades of studying chimpanzee behavior have convinced him that we can learn a lot about the foundations of the moral life—a life often considered to be exclusively available to human beings—from observing non-human primates. Although 99.8% of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees, we tend to be exceptionalist about the moral life—only human beings are capable of it. Yet de Waal points out that features fundamental to the moral life, including empathy, deference to the needs of others, cooperation, deliberation and more are frequently on display in chimpanzee interactions. He expresses one of his conclusions by asking

Would it be realistic to ask people to be considerate of others if we had not already a natural inclination to do so? . . . [Humans] started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

Knowing that few, if any, of my students were likely to have a chimpanzee at home, I decided to go a notch or two farther out the biological spectrum and asked how many of them had a dog or a cat at home. Almost every hand went up. How many people thought that their dog or cat was capable of morally relevant deliberation? Almost every hand went up. And the stories began.dog-on-furniture

There is, for instance, the dog who is banned from laying on the living room furniture. She is perfectly obedient concerning this prohibition until she thinks everyone is upstairs. When she believes she is not being observed, she jumps on the nearest piece of furniture—but was caught by the nanny cam. This, I told my students, is a canine version of Gyges and the ring of invisibility story from Plato’s Republic—how differently would you act from your law- and moral-rules-abiding norms if you thought no one was watching? Then there is the dog who chooses which human family member to sit with while watching television according to which one of them took him for a walk that day. He chooses not to sit with the most recent walk companion, since the dog apparently wants to make sure that everyone in the family gets equal snout time with him.dog-intelligence

Every dog owner believes that their dog is capable of high-level thought, but has also had the experience, as Daniel Dennett describes it, “of looking deeply into your dog’s eyes and realizing that no one is home.” Although dog-lovers don’t want to hear it, it is likely that the majority of our examples of canine intelligence on display are actually cases of humans anthropomorphically projecting intelligence where it doesn’t really belong. When my dog acts in a manner that, if I acted that way, would be explained by my ability to deliberate and think, I assume that she must be thinking when she acts that way. But biologists and animal behaviorists tell us that apparently intelligent behavior can almost always be explained without assuming any high-level thought being involved at all. It’s sort of like finding out that the apparent design of our world can be explained by natural processes without referring to an overall designer. Most of us don’t want to hear it—but that doesn’t make it any less true.100_0712

But the author of our article for class the other day wasn’t claiming that non-human animals use high-order reasoning when they behave in ways that reflect moral sensibilities. His claim, rather, was that their moral behavior comes from their ability to feel—to empathize, care about things other than themselves, even to sacrifice their own interests in deference to the interests or needs of others. It is this capacity to feel—an ability that we share with our animal brothers and sisters—that arguably serves as the foundation of moral behavior, whether the animal in question is capable of high-order reasoning or not. When I asked my students for examples of canine empathy rather than rationality, there once again was no shortage of stories. Many of the stories were strikingly similar to what Jeanne and I have observed over the past several years in our three dog pack at home. friedalinaOur dachshund Frieda, for instance, behaves in an obviously empathetic manner when someone in the house, dog or human, is in distress. Several years ago my youngest son Justin was diagnosed with cancer (fortunately he has been cancer-free now for a few years). When he returned from radiation sessions, he would collapse in exhaustion on his bed or on the couch. Frieda, who under normal circumstances did not give Justin the time of day, would immediately burrow herself next to him so he could absorb her warmth and positive vibes. Frieda acted similarly when Jeanne was recovering from hip-replacement surgery and, most recently, when I broke my leg in a bicycling mishap. Frieda, who under normal circumstances is all about herself and manipulating others to her will, becomes an ambassador of empathy and caring when someone is in need.

But just as with human beings, not all dogs are created equal with it comes to the empathy scale. Once Jeanne and I were walking Frieda with our other dachshund, Winnie, when, a couple of blocks from home, I tripped on an uneven portion of the sidewalk and fell flat on my face. Literally—my forehead bounced off the pavement. Frieda’s reaction was, on the one hand, to stick her face in front of mine, lick me, and sit next to me as I woozily tried to get up. 100_0870Winnie, on the other hand, said “I’m outta here!” and galloped the two or three blocks home as fast as her three-inch legs could carry her. It was the difference between “Dad! Are you all right???” and “Every man for himself!!”—just as we find in the human world.

I finally had to call an end to pet stories in class or we would never have gotten anything else done. I then asked my students to consider which is more important to the moral life: Reason or sentiments? Our ability to think or our ability to feel? After some discussion in small groups they reported back, predictably, that both are important—but if forced to choose between reason and sentiment as more important, feelings won out. Although this flies in the face of some of the most powerful and influential moral theories ever proposed by philosophers (Immanuel Kant, for instance), it squares well both with what some other philosophers have thought (David Hume, for instance) and—more importantly—with our experiences and intuitions. Our shared evolutionary history with other animals laid the foundations for our complex and sophisticated moral capacities. When we want to see where morality comes from we need only observe our canine family members. It turns out that someone is home after all.100_0595

Insufficient Evidence

russellBertrand Russell was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and Nobel laureate. He was one of the most important and recognizable public figures in the English-speaking world during the first half of the twentieth century. He was also an avowed atheist. The story is told that at the end of one of his public lectures in which his atheism was on full display, a furious woman stood up during the question and answer period and asked, “And Lord Russell, what will you say when you stand in front of the throne of God on judgment day?” Russell replied, “I will say: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but you didn’t give us enough evidence.’”

I was reminded of this story when the author of an article I assigned in my ethics classes the other day included it at the beginning of his discussion of how people use evidence to support the different sorts of things we claim to be true. For instance, the author claimed, verifiable and objective evidence serves as the foundation for truth claims in the sciences, but in religious belief—no so much. Indeed, the author continued, religious belief is easy and available to everyone because evidence is not required—just faith (whatever that means). atheismThe author identifies himself as an atheist who is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious belief—his conclusions make me wonder if he has ever actually met a person of faith.

As I am working with fifty students in two sections of General Ethics through our current unit entitled “Does God have anything to do with ethics?’ I have found regularly that my junior and senior students—the majority of whom are products of Catholic primary and secondary education—are often no more informed about the relationship of evidence to faith than the atheist author of the article for this given day. A few weeks ago I provided them with my “go to” definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the hebrewsevidence of things not seen. Some were surprised to learn that this definition, which does not refer to either God or religion, is from the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. Whatever else faith is, the author of Hebrews is claiming that evidence has something to do with it.

I decided, as I often do, to get at this tricky issue obliquely and through the back door. “How many of you have ever been to Japan?” I asked. No hands went up in either class section, including mine. “How many of you believe in the existence of Japan?” I asked next—all hands went up. “How does that work?” How do we come to believe in the existence and/or truth of something when we lack direct supporting evidence? Because clearly the preponderance of things that each of us believes to be true—thousands upon thousands of items of all sorts—are beliefs that lack direct empirical evidence to support them.“How many of you believe that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in 1865?” I aslincolnked next. All hands went up. “How many of you were there when it happened?” No hands went up—I assured them that even I was not old enough to have been an eye-witness. So once again we have an example of a claim that everyone believes to be true even though we lack “concrete evidence” (as my students like to call it) to support our belief. Or do we?

Upon being asked to list what sorts of evidence we do have to support our beliefs concerning the existence of Japan and what happened in Ford’s Theater in April of 1865, my students came up with several suggestions:

  • Testimony—The word of others, eyewitnesses when possible, counts as particularly strong indirect evidence. Even though I have not been to Japan, I know people who have visited there and have even met people from Japan. It is, of course, possible that all of these people are lying to me, but the more that the testimonies I gather are consistent with each other, the more likely it is that they are pointing toward something true. This doesn’t work, of course, when considering events where no eyewitnesses are available, such as what happened at Ford’s Theater, but fortunately the spoken word is not the only way in which we are able to gather relevant testimony.
  • Texts—Those who have not been to Japan have seen pictures of it and have read descriptions of it. These are indirect and second-hand, but become part of accumulating indirect evidence. Textual evidence for historical events for whom there are no longer any eyewitnesses is the bread-and-butter of the historian’s trade. goodwinThe great Doris Kearns Goodwin gave a talk on campus a couple of evenings ago—when she spoke of Abraham Lincoln, it never occurred to me to wonder if what she was saying was true. As she described the meticulous ways in which she gathered evidence for her book Team of Rivals from letters, diaries, newspapers, and other first-hand accounts from over a century-and-a-half ago, I was reminded of how the only evidence we have of the truth of anything occurring more than a hundred years ago requires both investigative strategies and an inherent trust in the results of such investigations.
  • Traditions—Often all we have to rely on to bolster various beliefs is what has been passed down from generation to generation as stories and traditions intended to capture the essence of an individual, a family, or a culture. We use such stories and traditions as evidence to support our best guesses concerning what might have happened; they form an important part of the foundation of belief that gets passed from generation to generation.

It was clear as the discussion proceeded that in some of the most important parts of our daily lives, both as we engage with the present and as we consider the past, our “certainties” are built on a foundation of uncertainty, a foundation that we eventually depend upon as if it were certain as our collection of indirect evidence reaches an imaginary tipping point.

We are now half-way through the semester and my students are familiar with my teaching strategies, so no one was surprised when I stepped back from the board where I had listed their examples of indirect evidence and asked, “How might these types of evidence work in another area of belief where we have a difficult time accessing direct evidence—belief in God?” As it turns out, the same sorts of indirect evidence that we use on a daily basis to bolster our belief in all kinds of things are available when we enter the arena of faith. sacred-textsSacred texts are used as sources of evidence of all sorts; regardless of whether a person considers such texts to be divinely inspired or not, they contain evidence of how people have engaged with issues of God and faith over the centuries. Such texts purportedly contain testimonial evidence to the existence and nature of God as the divine reportedly interacts with human beings, and interpretations of these testimonies become centerpieces of traditions that develop into religions.

We also have the same sort of indirect testimony concerning faith-related issues that my students used when identifying the sources of their belief in the existence of Japan even though none had ever been there. For instance, I know many people who report personal experiences that they believe can only be explained by an invasion of or intervention into their life by something greater than themselves. Often such reports can also be accounted for by explanations other than a direct encounter with God, but in such cases one must always consider both the reliability of the person giving the testimony and whether other similar reports have been given by other reliable sources. testimonyAnd as always, whether or not a person believes such reports is going to be a direct function of her or his predisposition to believe anything. How much evidence is enough? What sorts of testimony will I never believe, no matter who it comes from? To claim that evidence is ever free of all sorts of psychological and personality-driven biases is to ignore how we actually gather and use evidence in real time.

My answer to Bertrand Russell’s complaint that “you didn’t us give enough evidence” is that perhaps Lord Russell needed to consider what sort of evidence would have counted as “enough,” as well as what even counted as evidence for him at all. If his claim is that there is not enough “concrete evidence” to establish the existence of God, I might agree. But I would remind Russell that the vast majority of the many things that we believe to be true are not supported by such evidence either. When considering issues as important as faith, there is no need to change the rules of the evidence game—faith is, after all, “the evidence of things not seen.”

October Musings

Autumn in NEAutumn is my favorite season of the year, and October is my favorite month. This is not surprising for a native New Englander, since turning leaves together with crisp, sunny and cool days are an attractive combination. Even on this particular middle-of-October day as I write, when it is unseasonably warm and humid with a threat of heavy rain later, a few typically beautiful fall days in the past week and the promise of more to come keeps me weather-happy. I know that autumn bums many people who live where the seasons change out because it means that winter is coming. But I like winter as well, or at least the idea of it. The older I get the less I enjoy the actual fact of shoveling snow on occasion and having to warm the car up every morning, but I’ll take it over the Florida summer humidity and heat that my son and daughter-in-law profess to love for some unknown reason.halloween birthday

October not only means my favorite kind of weather, but also puts me in a reminiscent mood. October was an important month during my growing up years because both my mother and my brother were born in October (my mother on Halloween, which meant that we usually ignored her birthday in exchange for more interesting activities). It is my brother’s birthday in a few days; I am several months older now than the age at which my mother died. She died of cancer in October, just three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday, followed a couple of weeks later unexpectedly by the death of my father-in-law of only a few months. That was twenty-eight years ago; amazingly, sometimes it seems more like twenty-eight weeks.

October is a centrally important month every year for both students and faculty on college campuses—the first big papers and often the first significant exam of the semester (or perhaps the midterm exam)midterm are usually October events. For students this means even more stress than usual; for faculty it means that the first few weeks of the semester that have pleasantly been free of tons of grading are now at an end. Faculty love to bitch and moan about grading—I used to be great at such complaining until Jeanne asked me once many years ago at the end of my latest grading whine-fest “Isn’t that part of your job?” Well yes, I guess it is. It’s the one part of my job that I hope I don’t have to do in my next life (because I still intend to be a college professor—there’s nothing better). Now I tend to think of October grading as a great opportunity to learn new things from my students.

For instance, my colleague on an interdisciplinary faculty team informed me by email a few days ago that she just read the following in one of his freshman papers: “As Mr. Morgan talked about in lecture, during this time and culture, obeying god was the priority of every man, even if that means sacrificing your own son, which happened a lot in olden times.” Google UMy colleague wrote “I guess I must have missed that lecture.” I responded that “Mr. Morgan is my evil twin who gives lectures on off days for students who don’t come to the regularly scheduled lectures. I take no responsibility for anything Mr. Morgan says.” In one of my own papers (the same assignment that produced my colleague’s paper) one of my freshman began as follows: “According to Google, happiness is defined as . . .” I’m glad that I’m old enough that I won’t have to fully adjust to the brave new educational world that is just around the bend.Kathleen

October also often brings important speakers to campus. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a rock star in Jeanne’s and my estimation, speaks in ten days. I remember a couple of years ago when my friend and best-selling author Kathleen Norris was resident scholar on my campus and gave a late afternoon talk. At the beginning of Q and A , Kathleen mentioned how much she used to enjoy Q and A sessions with second-graders to whom she was bringing poetry in North and South Dakota classrooms many years ago. “How old are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a cat?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you have a bicycle?” The next time I am in attendance at a scholarly paper event, those are the questions I’m going to ask. Because those are the things I really want to know.

Even though the liturgical year is still slogging through endless weeks of “Ordinary Time,” October always brings welcome entertainment. Last Sunday we celebrated Saint Francis Sunday with “Blessing of the Animals.” I went to the early show with Frieda, who along with five other dogs held center stage and generally behaved themselves.

Three years ago

Five years ago

This year

Two years ago

For several years running I was lector for Saint Francis Sunday and read the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers. My friend Marsue, who was rector of our little Episcopal church for those years, made sure I was scheduled as lector for this event every year because I always brought Frieda to the lectern so she could stare people down while I was reading.

During October the weekly readings are still stuck in Ordinary Time, where we have been since Pentecost. This year the readings from the Jewish scriptures have wandered through various prophets yelling at whoever would listen about various shortcomings.  Last year we were walked through the familiar and fascinating stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and the dramatic escape of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. In Exodus 32 Moses is up on Mount Sinai hanging out while God writes the Ten Commandments and everyone else figures he’s never coming back. So they make the Golden Calf, start a minor orgy, and you know how that worked out. golden calfMoses is pissed; God is even more pissed. “Jesus Christ!” God yells (he forgot what part of the Bible he was in for a moment). “Moses, can you believe this shit?? I’ve had enough of these clowns! Stand back, Moses, while I wipe them all out. Then I’ll begin again with a new bunch of people starting with you, sort of like I did with Abraham in the previous book.” Moses points out that this would make God look bad, given that he put so much effort and creative thought—from plagues to parting a sea—into getting these people out of slavery, only to kill them in the desert. God’s response to Moses’ point is my favorite verse in the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in the entire Bible: And the Lord changed His mind. The implications are unlimited.

October also provides me with a yearly opportunity to introduce a bunch of innocent freshmen to my choice for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition: Aristotle. McEwanHis vision of the moral life, of the life of human flourishing, is second to none. I came across a beautiful description of such a life not long ago in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act:

Welfare, happiness, well-being must embrace the philosophical concept of the good life. She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Autumn is a time when I feel, at least a little bit, that such a life might be possible. Thanks, October.love october

Horton in a Nutshell

geahDr. Seuss was a regular in our house when my sons were young—my thirty-something sons still occasionally mention how much they both loved Green Eggs and Ham in particular. Theodor Geisel’s creatively madcap work has occasionally made it into this blog over the past four years, from the star-bellied Sneetches in an early essay on heresy

Dr. Seuss and Heresy

to the environmentally-minded Lorax during an on-campus controversy over the demise of a 150-year-old oak this past summer.

I Speak for the Trees

The most recent Dr. Seuss classic to cross my radar screen involves a gentle elephant who believes that “a person’s a person no matter how small,” a couple of kangaroos with bad attitudes, and other jungle animals dedicated to making the elephant’s life difficult. Early last summer someone at a conference Jeanne was attending told her that she should read Horton Hears a Who; by late summer a large orange-covered copy had arrived at our house. I paid no attention to it until a couple of weeks ago.nutshell

As I drove across town headed for minor oral surgery (a phrase that has turned out to be oxymoronic), I listened to an interview on Boston Public Radio with Ian McEwan, one of my favorite contemporary novelists.

Ian McEwan on Boston Public Radio

McEwan was in town on a book tour promoting his new novel, Nutshell. On the basis of the interview, I ordered the book on Amazon as soon as I got home. It is a reworking of Hamlet with a few twists, including that it is narrated by an unborn child hanging upside-down in its mother’s uterus. A la Hamlet, the unborn child knows that his mother is having an affair with its uncle and that they are plotting to kill its father. The fetus is urbane, sophisticated, listens to music and podcasts vicariously through its mother, has developed a connoisseur’s picky tastes in wine, and wonders whether there is life after the uterus. This is going to be fun.

Toward the end of the segment, the two interviewers asked McEwan to read a passage from Nutshell.

Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies to be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some: courtship among the 18th century gentry, life beneath a sail, talking rabbits, sculpted hares, fat people in oils, dog portraits, horse portraits, portraits of aristocrats, reclining nudes, nativities by the millions, and crucifixions, assumptions, bowls of fruit, flowers in vases, and Dutch bread and cheese, with or without a knife on the side. Some give themselves in prose merely to the self. In science, too, one dedicates his life to an Albanian snail, another to a virus. Darwin gave eight years to barnacles, and in wise later life, to earthworms. The Higgs Bosun, a tiny thing, perhaps not even a thing, is the lifetime’s pursuit of thousands. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things? And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes. So, why not be an owl poet?horton

In the wonderfully random way that things often connect together, this passage made me think of the book that had been laying on our coffee table for the last couple of weeks: Horton Hears a Who.

Horton the Elephant, while splashing in a pool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him. He comes to realize that the voice is coming from a small person who lives on the dust speck; indeed, the speck is actually a tiny planet, home to a community called Whoville, the home of microscopic creatures called Whos. the-whosThe Whos know that they are vulnerable and exposed to possible harm in a dangerous world; the mayor of Whoville asks Horton for protection, which Horton happily agrees to provide. He places the Who-planet on a clover that he proceeds to carry in his trunk as carefully as a waiter carrying a tray of crystal champagne glasses. Horton has come to the same realization as the pre-born narrator of Nutshell: Each existing thing is the center of its own universe of interests, desires, and concerns—but each existing thing is “bound in a nutshell,” “just a speck in the universe of possible things.”

The apparent insignificance of human existence prompted seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal to write that The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me. Yet in Psalm 139 we are told that

You have formed my inward parts;

You have formed me in my mother’s womb . . .

My frame was not hidden from you,

When I was made in secret

And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

As both Horton and McEwan’s upside-down narrator realize, everything is at the same time both insignificant and unique. The challenge is to keep both of these in mind simultaneously.success

As Horton’s story proceeds, his fellow jungle animals refuse to believe that the Whos exist, believing rather that Horton is nuts. In scenes reminiscent of grade school playgrounds, various animals ridicule Horton, eventually managing to steal his Who-bearing clover and hide it from him in a large field of clovers. After a long search, Horton rescues the frightened and shaken Whos; at his prompting, they finally prove their existence to the still skeptical jungle animals by making as much collective noise as possible until everyone can hear them. Now convinced of the Whos’ existence, all the animals vow to help Horton protect the tiny community.

Each of us is both insignificant and infinitely precious, no matter what current circumstances might indicate. From within the confines of his mother’s womb, McEwan’s narrator gains insights into a world he’s not sure he will ever reach. The Whos, upon discovering just how vulnerable and fragile their world is, are discovered by someone greater than themselves, someone willing to put himself on the line again and again to preserve their special existence. It’s a wonderful retelling of a story that generations have embraced. “A person’s a person no matter how small,” after all.a-persons-a-person