Saturday, June 20, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 20, 2020 - Enhanced Collaboration

What shall come of this strange time? What is its wider purpose?  If God truly exists, what is Its point in all this for us? Personally I see no reason to exclude the notion that divinity has a loving and benevolent hand in our current experience. My own leap of faith is that there is love and benevolence in all things, even when they seem at their worst. I choose to see benevolence here.

What are some of the things that we already notice to be changed about our culture from this virus? Virtual gatherings, for one. And that has some interesting merits. I’ve noticed on Sunday mornings that there are people who have moved away or whose schedules and families have become too busy to attend church, now joining us again virtually. They’re finding fulfillment in being part of the virtual community. We will now continue the practice once able to gather again.

This is of course not limited to church life. Humanity has been moving for some time toward greater work-at-home models, remote operations and methods of virtual collaboration. Even surgeries can be performed remotely now. Is the pandemic nudging us now toward utilizing that ability to even larger degrees once it’s over? Is there benevolence here?

One of the more noticeable trends of human social evolution is enhanced collaboration with one another. As a communal species, it’s natural for us to collaborate. But the scope of our collaboration has broadened significantly over time especially with the development of technology. The modern collaborative trend really begins, however, with the invention of the telegraph in 1832, not this pandemic. That was when communication in real time across great distances actually began. That’s the moment the world began to shrink. And it shrinks to this day.

For all its wonders, mass communication has done as much to reveal our faults as gather together to share positive information. Being able to communicate with others in real time has propelled us forward as a loving species when injustice can be reported immediately. But we disdain the knowledge that comes as well. Technology has provided a glaring look in the mirror, and we often don’t like what we see. We shield our eyes until no longer able to do so. It’s human.

In most Christian traditions, the ritual of communion is celebrated. Sometimes daily, sometimes monthly or bi-monthly. But most recognize the act as a symbol of enhanced and deliberate community. It is an expressed intention to collaborate with one another in faith. The ritual is a reenactment of the final occasion Jesus would sit and break bread with his disciples. At this meal, the group were, in essence, making a pact with one another. Through the ritual born that night, the disciples were given a tool of remembrance that would foster an ongoing collaboration among future Christians everywhere.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, some churches celebrate a traditional communion, but nearly all celebrate a special kind of communion on the final Sunday of each church year in June: a flower communion. The words of this ritual honor the wider collaboration of all life as a model for human sharing and working together to make a better world. The most important thought of the prayer is in its final words: “...may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world.”

Rituals like these comfort us when we’re afraid or when we forget that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Remember that. Take part in these little rites of community. They will ease your heart.

Virtual collaboration has been forced upon us right now. What will be the outcome of that? Will it make our world better or not? In my opinion, how can it not? How could it be possible that a situation which compels us to work together in unique and broad-spread ways not ultimately do its part toward leading us in the right direction? Is benevolence at work here? What does your faith tell you?

Some religious leaders have concluded publicly that the coronavirus is a punishment from God. Some even claim to know that it is society’s increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ community which has angered God to the point of sending us a modern plague. But if that were the case. if God really did dispense punishment for humanity’s sins, I’d think It would have done so over far more far more sinful actions than whom people choose to love. If a punishment is to be dealt, it would be for our most unloving acts, not our loving ones. They are mistaken. And their mistake only alienates them, pushing them further from God’s hope of our one great human collaboration to be.

This is the opposite of the intent of religion. And they are doing it wrong. They’re cutting themselves off from the blessing of collaboration by isolating themselves in silos of fear and backward ideology. May we pray for all those who are afraid. But our global community is not waiting for them. They are being left behind. Pray for them.

In sending love to those who cannot work together we serve the purpose of enhancing our own ability to do so. Our love makes us more fully present to be there in service to our neighbor, to work together, and resolve the problems which humanity now faces. Problems that can only be solved by the act of communion with all humanity, indeed all life. Be at peace. Our great collaboration is now inevitable.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 13, 2020 - Leaning on the Warm and Fuzzy

I struggled with my message this week. For both my congregations, this Sunday is the blessing of the animals. We’re doing it virtually, of course.

But my mind keeps circling back to the crises unfolding all around us. It felt awkward to speak of something as trite as the warm and fuzzy when our world is suffering so. 

Of course there are genuine things about our world’s animal life which deserve our respect, honor and attention. Time should always be set aside for something as significant to humanity as that. Domesticated animals are our human responsibility for creating them in the first place. They’ve been bred by us to seek our approval and validation for their hard work while also providing love, validation, and companionship to us. We have played God with these creatures. There are responsibilities to that.

Far too many humans have taken on the responsibility of pet caretakership only to fail at it horribly. So we honor those who take in our loving life forms who’ve been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Please support your local animal shelters. They are doing good work.

Humanity has grown up alongside domesticated animals from the beginning. There are records of animals bred to be workers and companions dating back thousands of years. Selectively bred to enhance our preferred characteristics. Such as friendliness, for one. 

I remember reading once about a domestication experiment of silver foxes in the 1950’s. Illegal to study genetics in Russia at that time, it was conducted under the guise of fur manufacture by geneticist Dimitri Belyaev. He observed that by selectively choosing the friendlier animals to mate and create potentially friendlier offspring, while leaving the hostile ones to become fur coats, after a few generations, their ears started to flop over and their sharp teeth began to round off. As they genetically perceived the safety and support in their environment, their defense mechanisms began to switch off. 

While some of Belyaev’s conclusions from that experiment have come under fire lately, what still emerges from it, to me, is that as a species evolves generation after generation under safer circumstances where their ability to relate with humans is prized, even their physical characteristics become friendlier over time. 

I find it very interesting to imagine that as circumstances favor an evolution toward friendliness, an animal’s bodily defense structures such as sharper teeth, keener ears, or deadlier claws, become more dormant within the genes until perhaps needed again in some future generation. But that genetic adaptability to circumstance and desire raises a flag to me about our own ability to relate with one another.

Because human beings are a domesticated species. We are domesticating ourselves right at this moment.

We have selectively bred ourselves through our choice of mate for security, procreative ability, and resourcefulness, of course, but also we tend to choose our partners for their relatability, creativity, intellect, and ingenuity. One could argue that we often choose our sexual partners based on how naturally compassionate or empathetic they are as well. In other words, how friendly they are. 

Are these traits being handed down in our genes? Is there any evidence that our physical bodies have altered over time to accommodate our species’ perception of whether or not we are safe or in danger? Perhaps our brain wiring has shifted to value friendliness differently? Has it altered as a result of the fact that even though we exist in a difficult moment, over the course of human history we have only become more peaceful and loving to one another? I know some will argue with that last point. But a little research will show that it’s statistically correct. 

We have increasingly begun to demand the equal rights of all life and all humans. Is that a product of our self-domestication? Are we choosing to be more loving even on a genetic level? We should ask ourselves this question: Are the current challenges we’re experiencing right now a result of there being less love on the planet or more? We wouldn’t be demanding equal rights if our hearts weren’t telling us more loudly every day that that is what Love is asking us to do. We should be more like dogs. Dogs don’t discriminate against each other. They sniff each other’s butts equally. 

Which makes the subject of a fluffy kitten purring on our lap all the more relevant right now. Remember when the shutdown from the pandemic started back in late March, the first thing to go was toilet paper and the second thing was all of the animals in the shelters. 

Humanity has begun to notice the plight of the animal world and their environments more and more over the past several decades. Videos of animals being cute or loving literally built the Internet. Does that say anything favorable about our overall capacity to love?

Of course my thoughts immediately jump now to the ubiquitous evil figure in spy movies cradling a voluptuous cat along his arm as he dispenses murder and mayhem. Evil people like pets, too. But does it speak to the possibility that a thread of compassion and humanity still exists within them? (Remember I’m a rabid optimist.)

That’s sidebar notwithstanding, what I’m considering here is that our companion animals specifically have grown up alongside humanity, true unwittingly, but that relationship still has its advantages. So long as we remember our place is to lovingly care for them in exchange for their loving service to us. This has the potential of being a sacred relationship. And we don’t always treat it as such.

Of course this all is a persuasive argument for veganism and a life without contribution from animals as food or clothing. There are many ways and levels of embodying the maximum to do no harm. Find what is right for you, and purchase your products from ethical sources always. Even for those who eat meat, we should be purchasing pasture raised and organically produced meat without hormones or steroids. Vegan or not, there is no excuse for mistreating our domesticated animals, or any life for that matter. Vote for those who understand this issue. Spend your dollars on the same.

For those of us who have house pets, cherish them. Give yourself permission to be comforted by them now. They are the companions of humanity and they exist in our lives for a reason. They perceive our fear, our sadness, and our despair. Allow them to put you at ease. They wish for nothing more.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 6, 2020 - Peace Shall Prevail

It’s almost hard to conceive the level of desperate unrest occurring among humanity right now. A great moan emanates from us collectively as if we are slowly ripping at the seams while witnessing it in real time. We feel powerless to stop it. The sky feels as if it’s falling.

As real as this crisis truly is, the sky is doing no such thing, of course. It’s firmly in place as always. Yet none of this trauma is in our imagination either. Sadly, the presence of truth is no guarantee of progress when doubt is sewn. Even fake news makes its indelible impression on reality. Our own individual perception of this time is absolutely genuine. You are having a real experience.

But there are lots of real things in this world.

Love is real, too. So is compassion. As optimistic as I may be, I must be frank as well. I absolutely do see more hatred today than when I was a child. Much more. 

But, am I seeing less love?  I’m not. Much more, actually. It honestly appears as if there is more love actively and creatively expressed in the world today than when I was a child. 

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the increased brazenness of hatred being expressed. I can only assume. But even as we see more hatred, people are increasingly using their creativity and ingenuity to solve world problems. Society wildly celebrates those who make achievements of human compassion. It does not celebrate the opposite.

Against the backdrop of increasing riots and dramatic protests, there are hints at real progress occurring within society on the issue of racism which are crucial to its success. In fancy talk: the subtle perpetuating mechanisms inside systemic racism and discrimination (meaning some of what makes racism continue to flourish generation after generation) are becoming disturbed from their normal function by, among other things, our choice to use better words to describe other people. 

That small but profound shift is having an enormous and lasting effect on society. Even while the louder conflict rages and much larger battles are being fought, it's the meeker action which is the often the true stimulus of change. The call for kinder words is viscerally upsetting to some people and the ripple effect has been profound as the blinders have come off one by one. There are natural consequences to this. Rage is one of them. On both sides. Small shifts in our society, such as the advent of politically correct language, not only gets under the skin of racism and discrimination of others in general, but exemplify the success of the earlier work within the civil rights movement which has already made a lasting impact. That’s what’s bringing up the rage on both sides: It's the new visibility of social progress some don’t want. Do not despair! Keep supporting the cause of equality in your own way. There are far more on the side of unity than not.

Ironically, our natural instinct to work together is often switched-off in dangerous times. For ideological safety, people shut down and insulate themselves with those who think the same as they. Cross-pollination of shared ideas becomes quarantined. Fear makes us clench rather than embrace. There are natural consequences to that. Only an attention to the source of that fear will heal it.

Even while recognizing the abundance of violence currently occurring, people the world over are genuinely trying harder to expand their awareness of social issues. This is visible everywhere. Even national ad campaigns have picked up on our increased inclination toward unity and collaboration. Gender equality as well. Have you seen the new laundry detergent ads with men in them? I have. That never used to happen. Is that the advertising media trying to brainwash men into doing laundry? Not likely. And nearly all commercials today show people of mixed or ambiguous race. Hmm. Are they trying to convince us to be more racially mixed? Not likely. 

This is the advertising industry responding to the actual statistical changes toward gender and racial equity which we have already administered into our society. They spend millions on demographic studies and polls trying to get to know us and what makes us tick. They are experts on how we are thinking about important issues both political as well as personal. They know us better than we know ourselves. Look toward advertising if you want to see where humanity really is in real time. Advertisers always want to show us our most current selves—as improved through the use of their product, true—but ourselves nonetheless.

Civil rights has not arrived at its destination, by far, but it is doing its job relentlessly. The struggle is all real. It is based on a genuine and reasonable rage which legitimately exists. Sometimes that rage has been expressed in peaceful ways with successful results. Sometimes it has been achieved with violence and unrest as well, let’s be honest. Both have pushed the needle forward. 

I advocate for peaceful resolution always. But I also subscribe to the belief that there is no such thing as a disproportionate reaction. It is always, always proportionate to something. Perhaps not the situation as it exists in isolation from the larger picture, but that rage is coming from somewhere. Seek it out and soothe it. It’s hard, and humbling, but it’s the only way.

Earlier this week, one of my dearest friends posted this profound solution: “When times are full of confusion, fear or anger, the question to ask ourselves is: What does love require of me?”

Hate is not a real thing. Only fear is. Look for the fear and do what you can about that. The hate will evaporate when the underlying fear heals. That is the weakness of all hatred: The wound. Soothe the wound. That’s what the teachings of Jesus, as well as many other spiritual dharmas, ask of us. Pray for your enemies. Send a psychic balm to their fear. Pray for their ease. Work against your fear and rage. Get under the skin of it. 

There’s some physics behind this idea as well. Though we don’t understand it, we have observed its effects enough to conclude it’s probably genuine. But it blows our minds so much we don’t know what to do with the information. We don’t know how to apply it to our lives. Remember, however, we don’t understand a lot of things we still manage to make great use of. 

In 1993, a group conducted a consciousness study experimenting with lowering the crime rate in Washington D.C. using only prayer and meditation over a series of weeks “without any verbal, social, political or physical interaction between the meditators and the local community. The positive impact would be made quietly and discreetly from the field of consciousness.

This sounds far-fetched. But the crime rate did in fact drop in the city by 23.3% during the summer-long study period; something the Chief of Police said would be possible only with 20” of snow. I encourage you to read the study for yourself. Cross verify the information. 

Within all this just mentioned, exists the thread of what to do to be of service to the solution. Meditate on peace. Encourage others to do the same. Pray for it in groups (virtually, for the time being, of course). Spread creative and ingenious ways to be of service to others. Be a balm to fear, in person as well as on the level of your consciousness. Don’t encourage violence, but dialogue. Insert yourself into the problem by hosing it down with empathy. Relieve yourself of judgement. You cannot walk a mile in their shoes. There will be things you just can’t be made to understand. Pray for understanding to occur anyway. You are a bell unto the Universe. Ring like the dickens.