Moderation as a Virtue

It has been widely asserted that pride is the mother of all the other seven deadly sins.  If so, is there a candidate for the mother of all (or most) virtues? Perhaps anti-pride, like humility?  Humility is arguably a Christian virtue, but abject humility is at the opposite end of Aristotle’s golden mean fulcrum.  To Aristotle, any virtue resides in the center, the golden mean. Its opposite at one end is a vice, and so is its extreme at the other end. The classic example is the virtue of courage, its opposite being cowardice and its extreme being foolhardiness.

I would suggest that realistic self-awareness is the virtue in the center between the extreme of pride and the opposite of humility  But I  do not assert that a healthy self-awareness is necessarily the mother of all virtue (although one could make a case).

Rather, I see the underrated virtue of temperance as the core virtue, because it calls us to the middle of that Aristotelian fulcrum on every score.  No, not the temperance of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was only about drinking. Temperance is much broader, practicing many forms of self-control, seeking the middle ground.  A better contemporary term might be moderation, especially in a world where both political parties are driving away their moderates and making compromise impossible. But since Aristotle listed temperance among the four cardinal virtues (along with prudence, courage and justice), I will yield to his authority.  The thesaurus actually lists moderation as a synonym.  Who knows what the term was in Greek, and what is the best translation?

I voted in my first presidential election in 1964. Barry Goldwater insisted that moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.  Had I not already committed my vote to Lyndon Johnson, that would have done it for me.  I am temperate. I am a moderate, a proud moderate, a humble moderate. I am proud to call myself a moderate because I believe that moderation or temperance enables us to dwell together in a somewhat civilized fashion. I am humble to call myself a moderate because I know how imperfectly I live out that virtue in my daily life.

Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, defined neurosis as retreating to a limited defensible fortress of ideas.  By that definition, we live in a neurotic world. It’s time to step out of our carefully defended fortresses and step joyfully and courageously to the middle of the road, knowing that we thereby open ourselves to attacks from both sides of the road.

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My War on Grass

It started just as an effort to get my yard ready for spring.  Which includes the large tangled mess of grass and weeds known euphemistically as my lawn.  I am 77 years old, and I mow it in two physically demanding half-hour sessions on two separate days every week with a self-propelled cordless electric mower.  And as I do, I plot ways to reduce the amount of my corner townhouse lot that is occupied by green weeds and some actual grass. As I mow, I ask, what good is it doing? What good am I doing? Yes, the clover feeds bees, but like my neighbors, I keep mowing it down. (I did plant red clover in a garden bed, and am anxiously waiting for it to bloom).  I have no fruit trees for them.  I have a couple of spindly blueberry bushes that the birds enjoy, and six trees, five of which could host a few bird nests and some squirrels . No vegetable garden (neither forbidden nor encouraged by the HOA). Lots of flower beds that I carefully hand-weeded and mulched over the space of the last month, forsaking the use of Roundup as a chemical of uncertain properties that I do not wish to encounter.  My brother the Vermont organic farmer says that it poses risks to human health.

My next door neighbor has a tiny yard and a green thumb and was lamenting not being able to raise vegetables when I saw the light.  A space between my patio and hers, about 150 square feet, enough for some vegetables—and a piece of lawn that will no longer need mowing. Two gardeners to tend to the planting, weeding, and watering.   I checked the sun to make sure every part of it was getting some sun during the day, and found someone to trim some lower branches on two trees to reduce the shade.  So Monday is the appointed day to trim the trees, dig up the grass, and till the soil with organic topsoil and fertilizer. No chemicals allowed!

I know that lawn is useful for younger families with children who play there and for picnics, but in my retirement community I see none of that, just a lot of hired help showing up weekly to mow and spray a lawn that is not used for anything.  Even dogs don’t get to play on the lawn, because they have to be on a leash. So the next step is to convert as much of my yard as I possibly can to smaller trees, bushes and shrubs that invite our birds and bees and butterflies to stick around.  Butterfly bush. A few fruit trees.  Every chunk of land converted to a different use means less grass to mow and to neglect.  Mowing uses human and electric energy when I am trying to reduce my carbon footprint. Willful neglect means not using a variety of herbicides and pesticides to make my lawn look like part of a gold course.

As I embarked on this war, I have been more aware of other people’s lawns both in my retirement community and around the city as I drive by.  Many of the homeowners have shrunk their  lawns and expanded the other kinds of vegetation that makes their little corner of the world more inviting to the passers-by, as well safer and more supportive  as to our neighbors the squirrels and the worms (good for the soil), the bees and the butterflies, the rabbits and the birds.

As my friend Mary Ann says, I have a WOG—War On Grass.  Won’t you enlist in my army and join the battle?

 

 

Hope Springs Eternal

The equinox, known as Ostara, is March 20th, marks the official beginning of spring.  Lent, the 40 days of prayer and fasting, began March 6th.  Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, invites us to celebrate the greening of the earth in the northern hemisphere. A mowing and planting season is underway in my southern state, and even in the colder north where I grew up, signs of spring are poking through the still cold dirt. It is the season of love (In the spring a young man’s fancy…), fertility, growth, and renewal. Spring is early this year, with a good head start long before the equinox.  My lawn needed its first mowing in late February.

Beneath this blooming spring is a fragility that re-emerges in the fall and lasts through the winter months.  All life is fragile, tentative. And so is the earth, not the seemingly endless resource that generations of humans believed it to be. Earth may continue, but life on earth is much more vulnerable.  We see the effects of climate change, the accelerated loss of species and wildlife habitat, the battle over access to clean potable water, the increased migration of refugees from human destruction, the growth of militant nationalism, and the loss of arable land as symptoms of an underlying illness.

 It is too easy to shrug our shoulders and say, what can I do, what can one person do? Or as Louis XIV said, Apres moi, la deluge—for which he took no responsibility, leaving his grandson to face the guillotine. But while none of us can save the earth single-handedly, we can do our small part.  The more affluent we are, the more power we have to play a bigger part. We can begin with all the things we have been told would slow the process of destruction—eat less meat, grow more vegetables, stop using pesticides that kill bees, consume less energy, walk more. Practicing those small acts of reverence toward mother earth can feed a movement from despair to hope.  But no one can do it alone. We can join with others to share ideas, to spread the practice of reverence, and to change laws and policies from local land use to some of the elements of the Green New Deal.

The motto of my adopted state of South Carolina is dum spiro, spero–while I breathe, I hope. Hope does not guarantee success, but lack of hope does guarantee failure.  Let us celebrate the coming of spring as a renewal of the three central Christian virtues of hope, faith, and love—hope for a future for our grandchildren, faith in the power to make change, and love for our mother earth.

 

Is This Candidate Presidential?

It is hat in the ring season, less than a year to the presidential primaries. As we listen to candidates, how are we going to measure them? There is an interesting contest developing on the Republican side, but there are far more competing in the contest to beat the incumbent on the Democratic side. In 2016 the Democrats had four candidates, but the Republicans had 16, using up all the oxygen before nominating the survivor.  So what is the checklist that we voters will use to decide our choice in the primary and then in the general election. (Disclosure: I live in an open primary state, so I can vote in either one.  That adds an extra challenge to my criteria.)

One factor that will affect the outcome is the difference between the parties in how they run primaries.  The Republicans have winner- take-all primaries, so the candidate who finishes first, even with only 25% of the votes, gets all the delegates from that state.  The Democrats assign delegates proportionally, which means the process will likely take longer and wear out the ultimate candidate before the general election campaign starts. On the other hand, the Democrats have more super delegates than the Republicans, so there is a secondary strategy of courting the establishment, which will probably hurt those candidates on the more left wing of the Democratic party.

Do we want to be partisan and select the candidate who appears to have the best chance of winning?  The desire to win may favor white straight male candidates, although the Democrats successfully challenged that strategy with a charismatic candidate in 2008 and 2012. The success of female candidates in state and Congressional races in 2018 may suggest that the glass ceiling, and the persons of color ceiling, and even the heterosexual ceiling may be cracking if not shattering.

In the 2016 campaign, the word presidential was tossed around a lot. It means different things to different people.  Trying to pick out the most presidntial candidate from a big field is a big challenge to the voter.  Economics tells us that the more choices we have, the more we get confused and unable to decide. So each of us needs a checklist of what we are looking for, what makes one candidate more presidential than another. This is mine.

On both sides, we look for charisma.  Very few of our recent winners lacked charisma.  Bush 43, was probably the least charismatic of the lot, followed by Richard Nixon whose election reflected other factors. The magnetic appeal of a strong and persuasive personality has always mattered, but is even more important in an era when candidates are packaged and mass marketed. Despite all the attention given to promises and platforms, they probably matter less than the ability of the candidate to inspire trust and enthusiasm.  Campaigning is marketing, and marketing is designed to appeal to the gut and the emotions more than to the reasoning mind.

The second factor, along with charisma, is vision.  Often the campaign slogan is the most effective way of reducing the vision to a twitter or bumper sticker size–look at Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again and his promise of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. What is this candidate’s vision for the future?  How closely does it match mine on issues of health care, environment, crime, gun safety, war and peace, immigration?  Is this candidate, based on his or her record (and we have lots of senators running!), going to work to implement that vision?  Is he or she pragmatic enough to work with the other party in crafting compromises?

The third factor is the people that the candidate surrounds himself or herself with. Whom do I want to appoint judges, agency heads, and the cabinet?  Will this potential president listen to his advisors, or go it alone? To whom does the candidate listen?  What is his leadership style–is he a loner or a team player?Does he make quick decisions or spend time reading, listening, and negotiating?

The fourth criterion is honesty, openness, trustworthiness, sincerity. (A sense of humor also helps!)  In other words, character. Is there anything in the candidate’s past actions (or inactions) that makes me question whether he or she will be open and honest with the American people? Or to doubt that there is a commitment to and understanding of the demands of public service?  These qualities are harder to assess, but in some ways the most important, because what one does is a product of who one is.

So as I start my sorting process, those are the criteria I will be looking for–charisma, vision, network and leadership style and character.  Perhaps it’s time to start your own list.  The primaries are only a year away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons in group wordsmithing

 

Have you ever tried to hammer out something—a slogan, a mission statement, a position, a letter to the editor, an op-ed or other communication from a group? Frustrating, isn’t it?  I recently had some useful lessons in wordsmithing.  It happened in my congregation, but it could happen anywhere—a business, a neighborhood association, a volunteer organization.  In this case, we got stuck, and then unstuck (more or less) on the use of two words with multiple meanings.  The first was church.  The second was law.

Like many congregations in my faith tradition, in place of a creed we have an affirmation.  There are variants of the original in different congregations, but they are pretty similar. The first line of the version we had been using for decades was “Love is the spirit of this church.” The word church kicked off a heated discussion.  After we turned down the flame, we agreed that the word church had multiple meanings.  A building (the Presbyterians are building a new church), A worship service (The minister announced… at church this morning). A congregation (Fred is a member of First Baptist Church). A faith tradition (The Catholic Church practices infant baptism, while the Baptists baptize adults.)

But with all these meanings, there is no question that church is a Christian word.  Jews go to synagogues or temples, Muslims to mosques.  My faith tradition is an inclusive one, with Christian roots but also strong infusions of earth-centered, humanist, and Eastern religious teachings. I grew up in a liberal Christian tradition, so the word church didn’t bother me, but I understood the objection of others.

Church derives from the Greek kyrios, and roughly translates as house of the lord.  In French, Spanish and Italian, the word for a place of worship is derived from the Greek word ecclesia, or congregation, which would apply to any faith tradition.  But we decided that congregation was too long and too specific, because it did not affirm the larger faith tradition to which we belong.  After considering several alternatives, we rewrote the first line to read “We gather together in a spirit of love…”   Church had been replaced by we, which incorporates all of the meanings except a building.

As we worked through the rest of the affirmation, we decided to follow the lead of a sister congregation in replacing the word law. Originally the second line was “And service is its law.”  We replaced service with justice, but the real focus was on replacing law, which several of us found objectionable.  Our two philosophers (literally, both have graduate degrees in philosophy) liked yhe word law as something we chose to impose on ourselves.  But the multiple meanings of law again were a source of dispute and confusion.  The law of gravity? Don’t try defying it, although a few of us escape it for a while with the aid of space-age technology. The laws of nature? Hard to argue with them.  But the more common meanings of law are governmental or religious.  We have to obey the speed limit laws, the no-littering laws, the laws governing domestic violence, theft, and a host of other things that we ignore under peril of fines or jail sentences.  If you are an observant Jew you will also keep the sabbath and observe the dietary laws.  If you are a Muslim there are food prohibitions as well as obligations.  Seventh Day Adventists abstain from caffeine and alcohol, as do Mormons. Our  faith tradition affirms shared values, and has some rules or guidelines for behavior within the community, but no laws.

There is a widespread understanding of the word law as rigid, undebatable, and externally imposed, with violations subject to punishment.  Carrying that understanding into a religious community strikes a sour note with some of those who are asked to repeat this affirmation each Sunday. Philosophers notwithstanding, the second line now reads, “with justice as our guide.” Our philosophers still prefer law, but they did bow to the wishes of the several dozen participants who felt otherwise. language.

Wordsmithing in a group is a challenging exercise.  Poorly done, it can lead to ongoing conflict.  Well done, it can enrich mutual understanding. I hope your next effort in crafting a mission statement, a set of goals, a communication, or an affirmation is also an exercise in thoughful listening and practicing mutual respect.

Lessons from the Shutdown

 

What lessons can we average, non-federal employees gain from the government shutdown and the furlough of federal workers?

  1. Every powerful weapon, once used, causes some damage to the user as well as the direct victims. Perhaps it is worth the cost, perhaps not. Harry Truman would certainly have understood that weapon, even if that understanding did not change his mind about using the atomic bomb.
  2. The government does more useful things than most of us could have named before the furlough.
  3. Members of the Coast Guard are in military service but, even though it has a role in defense, the Coast Guard is for some bizarre reason under the Department of Homeland Security.
  4. Someone has to stand up to a bully. A grandmother, maybe. Eventually someone does.
  5. Empathy is a powerful tool (for federal workers who couldn’t pay the mortgage or had to go to food banks), but inconveniencing the rich and powerful with flight delays and cancelled flights is much more effective.

Are at least some of those lessons enough to remove a shutdown from the arsenal of political weapons available to Congress and the President?  Time will tell.  Maybe very soon.

 

MLK Day:Bonding and Bridging

 

Humans need communities. We are social animals, and we rely on each other for support, both material and emotional. Family is one such community. Sometimes that is enough. Other communities result from being thrown together in work or neighborhoods.  But often we seek out others who share our values, our experience, our interests. We join a church, a bridge club, a civic group, a parents’ group, a tennis association, and form friendships with those who are easy to talk to because of shared backgrounds and a similar way of viewing the world.  And if we are not careful, we retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, avoiding conflict with those who view the world differently.  Bonding has been strengthened by social media where we get to pick those we listen to and tune out those we don’t want to hear.  Our society is strong on bonding.  But it is weak on bridging.

In his book Them, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse argues that we need to talk and listen—especially listen—across the bridges, the gulfs that separate us.  Trump supporters and Bernie supporters, native-born and immigrants, rich and poor, male and female and those who don’t identify with traditional gender roles, liberal and conservative, more educated and less educated, urban and rural, Left coast and heartland.

It is good to be bonded to people you love and respect and enjoy, but we also need to bridge if our fractured society is going to move beyond polarization.  When I visited San Francisco last year with my daughter’s family, we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge.  The view from the bridge was amazing, and we could look back on the city we came from and see it from a different perspective.

Bridging among people rather than places is challenging, to truly listen to people who experience things differently. It’s also rewarding, inviting you to reconsider your world view and maybe do some tweaking. You can start the easy way, with books written by people you don’t always agree with (Ben Sasse in my case), or with TV shows that feature people who are different. The widespread acceptance of LBGTQ people was a result of bridging, most often because it was encountered within our bonding circles—a relative, a friend, the son or daughter of a neighbor. Likewise, men and women have had to both bond and bridge with the opposite sex if they want love, romance, sex and offspring. Sometimes mutual learning has taken place. Other times not.  But the segregation of our society into racial, ethnic, class and urban/rural enclaves makes those encounters across other bridges less frequent.  So we have to find ways of getting out of our comfort zones.  Liberals can watch Fox News now and then while conservatives can check out MSNBC.

Next week is Martin Luther King Day, observed in many communities with a day of service.  We can volunteer with prison ministries, food banks, homeless shelters, Habitat for Humanity to meet people whose life experiences have shaped their thinking in different ways.  You can seek out events for Black History Month in February to attend. You can volunteer to help an immigrant learn English.  A couple of years ago, I taught ESL to three graduate students wives (Muslims from China, Egypt and Libya).  The increase in cross-cultural understanding was amazing for all four of us.

Bonding takes place over time.  Bridging, likewise, is a process, not an action. In honor of MLK Day, look for a gulf you need to cross and find a bridge to take you there.