Tag Archives: attention

How to Be Good–A Message to the Graduates

Every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began six or seven years ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. You’ll be getting a lot of advice from a lot of people this weekend–most of them significantly older than you. This morning I want to spend a few minutes offering some advice from a group of people younger than you–a bunch of sophomores–on an important moral question that will be with you for the rest of your lives: the question of how to be good.

A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. Fr.Maximilian_Kolbe_1939What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity. And these were the figures that we studied in my colloquium—“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era’”–during the second half of the semester just ended.

During the first half of the colloquium, my colleague with whom I co-taught the colloquium and I delved with our students deeply into the dark side of the Nazis. Perhaps even more disturbing than the horrors they perpetuated were the various techniques people, with partial or even full knowledge of the atrocities, used to collaborate with, to deliberately turn away from, or to ignore evil. As we considered in the second half of the course examples of persons who did otherwise, who responded directly through words and actions to what was happening all around them, we found that the motivations for and manners of response were as varied as those responding.  BonhoefferSome had religious motivations, while the response of others was political in nature. Some lost their lives, while the activities of others were protected by distance and obscurity.

During the last seminar of the semester, I gave my eighteen students the following task: Suppose, based on what we have learned this semester, that we wanted to write a handbook or guide for future generations on how to preserve and perpetuate goodness in the midst of evil. Are there common techniques or skills that the people we studied this semester invariably relied on as they responded to evil? If so, what are they? The students worked on this in small groups for twenty minutes or so, then reported back to the larger group with their results. Here, in no particular order, are some of my students’ suggestions concerning how to preserve one’s character and integrity in the face of severe challenges.

Know who you are: It is very easy to become overwhelmed by the apparently monumental task of facing up to systematic evil and wrongdoing. In such situations, the only reasonable response appears to be “what can I do? I am only one person—I can’t make a difference.” But my students and I learned this semester that moral character begins with understanding who I am and what I am capable of. Good SamaritanI cannot change the world, but I can do something about what is right in front of me. Moral character does not require moral heroism. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, a story frequently referenced by various people we studied. The Good Samaritan was just a guy on a trip who stumbled across an injustice that he could do something about. His response to the man dying in the ditch was not motivated by philosophy, religion, politics, or personal gain—it was simply a human response to human need. That not only is enough, it can be miraculous. As the Jewish saying goes, “he who saves one life saves the entire world.”

Simplicity: One of my typical roles as a philosophy professor is to convince my students to dig deeper, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Le ChambonBut one of the continuing themes of this semester was that those who respond effectively to evil and wrongdoing have often reduced moral complexities to manageable proportions. The villagers of Le Chambon believed that human need must be addressed. Period. They also believed that all human life is precious, from Jewish refugees to Nazi officers. Period. The students of the White Rose believed that their country had been stolen from them and they had to help take it back. Period. Maximilian Kolbe lived his life believing that God, Jesus and the Blessed Mother love everyone. Period. In response to complaints that “things aren’t that simple,” the consistent word this semester was “sometimes they are.”

Some things are more important than life. I have often asked students over the years “what things are worth dying for?” more or less as a thought experiment. But for the people we studied this semester, this was not an academic exercise. During the first half of the semester we often saw people choosing not to act or turning the other way because they were afraid for their own lives. More often than not, my students were willing to give such people at least a partial pass, arguing that self-preservation is the strongest instinct that human beings possess. Then we encountered a series of people who proved that not to be true. Just as Socrates sharply drew a contrast between “living” and “living well” more than two millennia ago, my students and I encountered a series of counterexamples to the notion that self-preservation trumps everything else. In a variety of ways, those who responded to evil demonstrated that some things are more important than guaranteeing ones continuing survival. indexAs Socrates argued, some lives are not worth living. A life preserved by refusing to do whatever one can to resist evil is one of those lives.

Spirituality: Any number of the persons we studied placed their understanding of themselves and the world around them within a framework that included something greater than ourselves. My students chose to call this “spirituality” rather than “faith,” because many of the persons we studied were not religious in any traditional sense. But all were convinced that we human beings are answerable to something greater than ourselves, ranging from the divine to a responsibility to create a better future. Which points toward another technique for the perpetuation of goodness . . .

Look toward the other: One of the most important keys to preserving goodness in the presence of evil is that ability to focus my attention on something other than myself. Iris Murdoch defined love asYoung Simone “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real,” and from the villagers of Le Chambon through Maximilian Kolbe to the students of the White Rose, my students and I regularly observed persons who had incorporated this ability into their daily life. One of the greatest hindrances to goodness is what Simone Weil called “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” There is no greater technique for escaping these tentacles than cultivating a sharp awareness of the reality of what is not me.

Don’t be afraid: In The Plague, Albert Camus suggests that most human evil is the result of ignorance. CamusAlthough my students resonated with this notion, they concluded on the basis of their studies that in situations of moral emergency and stress, fear is a greater problem than ignorance. There is a reason why the first thing that an angel usually says in Scripture when unexpectedly dropping into some human’s reality is “Fear not,” since we often respond to the unknown, the strange and the overwhelming with fear. The message of the human angels we studied together was “Don’t be afraid to expose your small spark of goodness in a world of darkness. It might just change a life—maybe yours.”

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of these common techniques is their shared accessibility. Self-knowledge, simplicity, the ability to recognize what is truly important, spiritual awareness, courage—these are not magical moral weapons available only to saints and heroes. I can do this. You can do this. But only if we start now. Good habits can only be developed through repetition; we only become skillful wielding the weapons of the spirit through practice. Let’s get started.

When the Well Runs Dry

Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. Isaiah 12

Several years ago, during an infrequent return to northern Vermont where I grew up, Jeanne and I took a quick detour from Route 5 South to drive past the old homestead, the house in which I lived until age eleven. It was in poor repair, and seemed far smaller than when I was a kid. Most surprising was that Smith’s pasture, the cow pasture across the road that was the site of many childhood adventures, was gone. A tangle of trees and underbrush now grows where the gate to the pasture was. I’m hoping that if I had pushed through the brush I would have found Smith’s pasture on the other side, sort of like finding Narnia on the other side of the wardrobe. Because it was magic.

Growing up in the sticks has some definite plusses—how many city kids have a cow pasture at their disposal? Smith’s pasture was one of several unofficial playgrounds for my brother and me. Many were the summer mornings when my mother would pack us a lunch and we would climb over the fence into the pasture, limited only by the general directive to be back before dark. The generous Mr. Smith, whom I never met, gave my family free access to his pasture, while the evil Mr. Cole, who owned the adjacent pasture just down the road (and whom I also never met), refused such free access. Hiking, war games, superhero exploits—Smith’s pasture was the natural stage for just about anything two kids reaching double digits in age could come up with.

Vermont cow pastures bear little resemblance to the idyllic, flat pastures that bovines in other parts of the country enjoy. Smith’s pasture was a hill—a mountain in my childhood imagination—that  rose sharply from the road to a high plateau whose back boundary my brother and I never found. Large boulders and innumerable trees of all sorts were thickly spread across the hundreds of pasture acres. The slopes in portions of the pasture were steep enough that I often wondered what the dairy cows, not generally known for their mountain climbing abilities, thought of having to eke out their bovine existence in a less than congenial landscape.

Smith’s pasture was more than the regular locale for boyhood adventures. It was also the source of our annual Christmas tree. Each year in early December my brother and I would trudge up the hill in snow that was often waist deep, searching for the perfect tree. One year we returned at dusk with a tree so wide that it took us close to an hour to stuff it through the front door and so tall that our living room ceiling bent the top foot and a half over when we stood it upright. Only a special early infusion of Christmas spirit kept my mother from having a fit as we sawed off the bottom two feet in the middle of the living room rug.

It was only many years later that I put two and two together and figured out why Mr. Smith was so generous with access to his pasture. He may or may not have had a soft spot in his heart for children needing a place to explore—the real reason we had access to his pasture was the artesian well, located several hundred yards past the fence, which provided water for our house. A well-understood task accompanied our frequent treks into Smith’s pasture—don’t forget to check the well. It was my brother’s job to lift the hinged lid as high as he could—I was too small to do it—while I peered into the dim recesses below. “It looks fine!” “It’s a bit low!” or, one fateful afternoon—“It’s empty!!” This was distressing news, producing visions of no baths, no clothes or dish washing, and general aridness. The spring had widened a minor crack in the well wall into an exit route—it was many dollars and dry days later before the water was coaxed back into its proper location. When wells misbehave, life changes significantly.

One does not get very far reading in the Bible without encountering a well. In a largely desert landscape, of course, wells were both the source of life and the center of community activity. Isaac and Rebekah met at a well, as did Jacob and Rachel as well as Moses and Zipporah. Joseph’s older brothers threw him into a dried up well after he offended them one too many times. Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4  is one of the most fascinating texts in the New Testament. Battles were fought over wells. They are so prevalent and necessary in stories from a nomadic, arid land that it’s easy to imagine that they are natural parts of the landscape. But they aren’t. A well is a human attempt to harness the power of something very necessary but also very powerful—a spring of water.

As I learned at an early age in Smith’s pasture, springs do not always cooperate with our attempts to control and tame them. In ancient texts, springs and sources of water are sacred. This is not surprising, because water is necessary for life. A spring—an oasis—stands for life, for rest and refreshment. But it is the random power of a spring that most directly brings the divine to mind. Springs are as resistant to our attempts to control them as they are to our expectations.  Just when we think that we have the water under control, it decides to go somewhere else. This is the deepest secret to its living water: it transforms every obstruction into a new expression of itself: It turns every apparent barrier into a new channel..

This would be a good thing to remember every time I think I have God figured out, whenever my path to a frequently visited well becomes a bit too frequently traveled. But the divine spring has a mind and will of its own, apparently, and if I don’t pay attention, I will find my well, so carefully built to contain the spring, empty one day. And this is not a good thing—as Peter wrote, “these are wells without water . . . to whom the gloom of darkness is reserved forever.” It is easy to forget that the divine spring was never intended to be contained permanently in any external well, whether a building, a book, or any specific location. The good news, as Jesus told the woman at the well, is that the divine spring is “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” And that well is me. And you. It’s a great idea—portable wells containing the most life-giving water ever imagined. I need go no further than where I happen to be to find out what the divine spring is doing.

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isa. 58:11

White Privilege

Nothing but pain and sadness this morning after last night’s events in Dallas. My usual Friday blog post will go out tomorrow; today I’m recalling something I wrote shortly after the New Year about how impossible it is for someone like me to know what it is like to be a person of color in our country.

If I lived by my principles fully, I would never shop at Walmart. For reasons too numerous to belabor, Walmart represents many of the worst features of American capitalism. But there are many items that Jeanne and I regularly purchase at Walmart, items that we could get at any number of other retail establishments. So why do we go to Walmart? Because it’s convenient and its cheaper. walmartPrinciples be damned, apparently—I guess there’s an American capitalist in me after all. But I must confess that I don’t enjoy going there—I feel as if I’m doing something wrong every time I pull into Walmart’s parking lot.

Last Saturday was my latest excursion to the dark side for dog treats, a few cheap picture frames, checking the Keurig display (our Walmart occasionally has our favorite Amaretto flavor), shampoo, cold medicine, and a couple of other items for which in our experience Walmart has the lowest prices. After paying I headed for the exit where, as is the custom at this Walmart, there was an employee checking the bags of those leaving the store for the parking lot—something that Jeanne and I both find annoying and yet another reason to hate Walmart. Then something happened that I found worthy of a Facebook post when I got home.

walmart-security-checkHad an interesting experience at Walmart this morning. After buying my stuff and heading for the exit, there’s a Hispanic family in front of me and an African-American guy behind me. After checking the receipt of the family in front of me to make sure everything is accounted for, the Walmart employee at the door (an older white guy) waves me through. I said “No, either you check everybody or you check nobody.” Checking my receipt, he said “you’re right.” In the parking lot afterward, the guy behind me said “thanks, man–that was nice.”

This was not a typical thing for me to do; my awareness usually is only high enough to show the employee my receipt if she or he insists and get the hell out of there. But this time I noticed something and, contrary to my nature, said something about it. “Good for me,” I congratulated myself as I drove home.sticker

White privilege—I confess that although I read about it frequently and have intellectually affirmed that it exists for a long time, in practical terms I have been virtually blind to it. Jeanne and I have laughed occasionally that there are no two whiter people in the world than we are. I have white hair in a ponytail and white skin that is a product of my Scandinavian gene pool. Jeanne acts Italian, but has the beautiful, freckled lily-white skin from the Irish half of her ancestry. Without Jeanne’s red hair we would look like Casper and his significant other. But during our current Presidential election cycle my almost-sixty-year-old whiteness has come to my attention more frequently than in the past—I hear and read over and over again that certain elements of U. S. citizenry is angry, upset about all sorts of things, an anger that is making outsider candidates such as Ben Carson and Donald Trump attractive in spite of their complete lack of traditional qualifications for the Presidency. mad as hellAnd what sorts of people are angriest? Older white people, particularly older white guys. My demographic, in other words.

So what are older white people angry about? According to an older white couple interviewed by MSNBC while standing in line for a Trump rally, “everything.” When asked to be more specific, neither one of them went further than “we want America to be the way it used to be,” in alignment with Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” The attractiveness of that, of course, depends on how one defines “great”—as one of the anchors on “Weekend Update” on the Saturday Night Live broadcast that Donald Trump hosted recently remarked, “Whenever rich old white guys start bringing up the good old days, my Negro senses start tingling.” Specific issues are often raised, but the general sense is often that a segment of the population—particularly older white folks—have a gnawing fear that things they have taken for granted their whole lives are changing and that the world they thought they could depend on seems not quite so dependable any more. There is anger that a world which used to make perfect sense isn’t making sense any more. yodaOne blunt but honest way of describing this is that older white folks aren’t happy about an emerging world in which whiteness and entitlement are no longer synonymous.

I was surprised that my brief Facebook post about my Walmart experience received more “likes” and comments than anything I have ever posted on Facebook—and I’m pretty active there (more than I should be). My experience apparently hit a nerve—positively. One Facebook acquaintance whom I have never met in person commented “Not only is it great that you pointed this out at the time, but it is great that you posted about it. Too many of us white people aren’t even aware that this happens . . . probably partly because we aren’t even aware that ANYONE gets checked . . . when it doesn’t happen to us, we don’t notice.” It takes conscious awareness for the privileged to even see their privilege—this is why “All Lives Matter” from a white person is not an appropriate response to “Black Lives Matter.” This response implies that “of course black lives matter—we all do, because everyone is equal in our country. Didn’t you know that?” Ignoring, of course, the fact that older white folks like I have been the beneficiaries of generations of accumulated and embedded privilege our whole lives, white privilegeusually without our even being aware—it can be jarring to be told forcefully that what we take for granted has been institutionally denied to those unlike us throughout the history of our country.

As I posted on this blog a week ago, my New Year’s Resolution is to find ways to be a blessing in my corner of the world—I’d like to think that my Walmart experience is a start. I’m not an angry older white person—even if I shared the fears of those who express such anger (and I don’t), I would not be able to sustain it for long. Being perpetually pissed takes a psychological toll. But as an older white person I am privileged in ways that are both institutional and unjust—I commit myself to noticing and addressing those ways as often as possible. As a close friend commented on my Facebook story, “I love those moments which move life toward justice—one has to believe that it all adds up.” One bit of awareness at a time.