Isolations of the Spirit

This sermon explores the spiritual impact of philosophical isolation, of living in a media-induced gate-community of the soul.

 

I’m starting to notice one really amazing comeback. Just about every week now, I spot a hawk flying overhead in my East Village neighborhood. I grew up in suburban NJ and remember never seeing a hawk until I had travelled a good hour from NYC. I remember when the Central Park hawks were first nesting twenty-five or so years ago. But now they’ve branched out and have found homes seemingly in every NYC park. With all the environmental losses we face these days, it’s wonderful to know that some species are figuring out how to adapt to even the most human of environs. It gives me hope that in some ways the natural world can still respond to what we continue to throw its way – even if it’s just a small indicator.


Twice in the past month, I’ve spotted a hawk rapidly flying away from a flock of pigeons in one case, and starlings in another. Hawks are natural predators of the smaller birds, but they have a hard time with 30 or more of their prey banding together and going after them. For all the mockery New Yorkers will level against the pigeon, seeing a flock of them chase down a majestic hawk will really challenge your view of what the pigeon is capable of.
Occasionally, you’ll even see different species of smaller birds team up to expel the lone hawk. This instinctual banding together is a really helpful practice in the natural world when one’s eggs and newborns are at risk. It’s a hopeful sign that even folks of different stripes can come together in the face of adversity.  It also reminds me though of a similar practice we humans are doing more and more commonly. We band together in groups of people with very like-minded philosophies, politics and viewpoints. And we then make sure we don’t let other views nest in our little part of the neighborhood.
…You know what it looks like. How many folks here regularly watch both Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly? When I still carried around a print version of the Economist, I would regularly hear folks ask me !“why would I bother reading that! That’s right-wing!” For those familiar, it’s not actually even right-wing, it’s just textbook economics. We find a media-outlet that matches our philosophy, and largely stick to it. !It’s not that we just don’t like the other side, rather, we often have a visceral reaction to it! During the presidential elections we asked our election night party to flip between CNN, NBC and Fox. We just couldn’t stay on Fox for more than five minutes at a stretch. Groans, gasps and grunts made us miss the end of almost every sentence the broadcasters uttered. And to be sure – just as the pigeons considered the risk of the hawk overhead, so are we often convinced that if we allow that viewpoint to remain too long in our hearing that it will be a threat to our future generations. Or like this morning’s story, it will at least be a threat to our peace of mind. (As an aside, we happened to be rewarded for our bravery by witnessing – live – Karl Rove’s meltdown denial of the election results.)
And in some ways, the threat is real. There are views that we do find dangerous. Philosophies that spread violence, or hate, are offensive to civilization. They go against our religious convictions regarding human dignity, equity and compassion.
For those views grounded in the diminishment of the human spirit, we do have to remain vigilant.
But for all the rest, we may be doing a disservice by so deeply isolating ourselves from differing viewpoints. And we may even be going against our religious values as well.
On the practical level, when we thoroughly excuse ourselves from engaging with differing world-views, part of us demonizes the people on the other side. Many of us have seen where this leads to in the extreme. You might have read arguments on your friends’ Facebook walls, or in more public venues like the Huffington Post or the Wall Street Journal. Someone makes an argument for some progressive issue. Then someone makes a counter argument for some conservative response. Within short order the Trolls are out and all substantive content is thrown out the window. Society diminishes and we resort to a caricature of kids in a sandbox.  For those who don’t use computers, imagine the very worst of the daytime trash-talk-shows.

Or maybe we sound like this morning’s wisdom story. We’re not where we belong, we’re clucking and baa’ing with all the rest. And all we succeed in doing is clanging noise and making a mess of our surroundings. No real interaction has occurred – or at least no mature human encounter. The thing to remember about this morning’s story, is that each side probably identifies with the overwhelmed and cramped family. We’re not likely to identify with the clucking chickens and the head-butting goats.

When we project the noisome and ridiculous onto our neighbor, we’re never going to find peace in our hearts, no matter our blessings.

With the evolution of technology we have gained so much. But in some ways, we’re losing our ability to interact responsibly with our neighbors. There’s a photo floating around Facebook that asks the question, “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?” One of the best responses is, “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”


Now there’s nothing wrong with looking at pictures of cats. My favorite little Tuxedo cat, Dewey, is well documented by my phone camera as well. But with the added layer of distance that technology grants us, there is a really strong tendency for the empty argument,
…for the easy demonization of the other,
…for slinging mud at targets that aren’t quite real.
Part of it is due to the distance. To the invisibility of the other person. In a former career, I supervised a 24/7 Information Technology help-desk. Sometimes callers would be incredibly rude, impatient and demeaning on the phone. !When I later had to visit them in person to solve the problem, they turned into the sweetest person you could meet! They often didn’t realize that it was me on the other end. Over the phone, I had little value. Face to face, they remembered how to properly treat another person.
How do we balance the mud-slinging, the differing views, and the broader challenges of dealing with crisis – and what exactly is at stake? Being able to sit at an awkward extended-family holiday dinner with civility is certainly an important life skill. But civic-minded folks may also be concerned with the weakening of real public discourse that’s not reactionary, mean-spirited, or full of hyperbole. It’s hard to move forward as a people if we can’t refrain from a social form of filibustering every time we engage with people who have differing views – if we allow ourselves to engage at all.
…Religiously, our principles ask us to find that balance.
…Our principles ask us to promote the inherent dignity of the other

  • …they call us to continue the search for truth and meaning
  • …and to do so in such a way that we allow ourselves to accept one another for who we each are

– even when we won’t agree.
Isolating ourselves from viewpoints that don’t match our own is changing the nature of public discourse. If the goal of the entertainment media is to satisfy the philosophical or political preferences of its viewer-base for private-sector financial gain, then the level of critical analysis will sadly diminish.
We enter into an echo chamber and hear only the sound of our own distracted mind.
Philosophical interdependence withers away. As we isolate ourselves, we isolate our spirits. We become more closed. We tend toward the self-righteous. We become increasingly sure that we are right. We grow less.

That’s a snap shot of society at large. But these same patterns sometimes happen in our own communities and congregations. It’s largely accurate to say that most of us may lean toward progressive social policies – particularly around civil rights and environmental concerns. But we likely don’t all have the same philosophies regarding economic matters. At the height of the Occupy movement in NYC, we clearly had a range of views on what an economically just world ought to look like. But UU circles tend toward privileging public discussions that favor the more progressive solutions – even though a substantial number of our members may not actually share those exact views. We project onto our community our views, our opinions, our sense of normal. We do all of this with the best of intentions.  When we do this we imagine that our congregations must be as isolated internally as we often isolate ourselves with our friends and our news choices. We weaken ourselves by the explicit and implicit actions that silence such discourse. In shutting out the difference, in our mocking of differing views – we become less knowledgeable of the world around us and become less capable to adapt to changing circumstances.

…We are weaker alone than together.

One type of a strength that’s found when we cross philosophical aisles is something called understanding. When we get how the other side sees the world, we can come to points of mutual gain. I was recently attending a workshop on how to transform destructive kinds of conflict that was led by Tracy Breneman. She’s faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Director of Religious Education for the UU congregation in Mt. Kisco, NY. Different conflict management styles get to this in varying ways, but one style she spoke about is the “collaborating” style. In collaboration, “emphasis is on developing a solution which meets all the important needs of both parties and does not lead to any significant disadvantages.”

It reminded me of a Bill Moyers interview with climate change communications expert Anthony Leiserowitz. Bill Moyers asked him how do we get to the two sides of politics to come together on the crisis of our environment – specifically how do we convince conservatives to take climate change seriously. To paraphrase, Mr. Leiserowitz spoke about appealing to conservative values around freedom. Essentially, ‘the freedom to live the lifestyle of a midwest farmer or rancher is literally at stake when we consider the extent of the drought that has plagued the Heartland.’ For me – that argument wouldn’t hold any weight. For me – I want to see the planet transformed because I value our role as stewards of this earth. I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t want to see any animal ever get hurt. What would convince me is not the right argument to use with a rancher. Mr. Leiserowitz’s view is more useful because he better understands another worldview than I.

To flip the example, I can think of one incredibly poorly timed event on January 19th. Various conservative groups are supporting a “Gun Appreciation day” which is attempting to send the message “Hands off my guns.” They intended it to be a challenge to President Obama’s inauguration. However, having it also coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr weekend, seems extremely out of touch with our cultural landscape considering MLK was murdered by a gunman. This lack of understanding is likely to create only further distance between the sides.


We can come to collaborative decisions based upon the needs of those with differing values. But we can only do so when we understand where others are coming from. We can’t understand where they’re coming from if we don’t listen with an open heart. If we diminish their opinions out of hand. If we never turn the station to their channel. If we only talk about the weather and baseball. (I guess only talk about baseball if you know ahead of time what team they follow…).
Some of you are probably thinking – ‘All that sounds great. In an ideal world, we all reach across the aisle and we all figure out what the other person wants and we come up with solutions to our mutual advantage. But we never do that, so this idealism isn’t practical.’ I could list examples where opposing political philosophies have come to mutual agreements to radically change how we live. The repair of the Ozone layer in the 1980s; the end to slavery in the US; Women’s suffrage; desegregation of our armed forces – or the inclusion of women – or the open inclusion of lesbians and gay men. Each of these required radical shifts in the status quo, and in some cases bloodshed. But we were able to pass through those challenges – each of which was considered idealistic for its time and, in the eyes of some, impractical.

There’s a scene in the movie “Lincoln” where the President is chastised for not having a pure abolitionist philosophy. Lincoln essentially responds, “what’s the use of knowing true north if you try to barrel through the obstacles rather than taking each into consideration, only to wind up stuck in a swamp or ditch.” The landscape of real human interaction is not accounted for in our strict ideologies, whichever side you happen to be on.
Today’s challenges are just as necessary – they are just as urgent. We heard this past week (January 10th) of another school shooting in a California school. This time the hero of the story was again a teacher.  His name is Ryan Heber and he talked the student down from continuing his attack. While public discourse, the opposing sides of the gun debate continue shouting at – or worse, threatening – one another. Considering the escalation of these public shootings, we have neither the time nor the luxury of squabbling in a very big sandbox.
Repeated surveys indicate that the majority of the membership of the NRA are in favor of basic checks on mental health when purchasing guns, or limiting the sale of assault weapons, or criminal background checks. The noise of the leadership of the NRA matches the gun lobby, and not its citizen members. Likewise, the majority of Americans are not in favor of the search and seizure of private citizens’ handguns. But if we were just to follow the sound-bytes and the headlines, one might not be able to hear the truth within the din. They read as though there were only two perspectives, and that both sides are out to get the other. … (And those two perspectives always neatly fit into pithy headlines.)


I’ve spoken about a number of challenges and tragedies we continue to face. It can feel daunting and overwhelming.
…But we can see the way through.
History repeatedly shows us that change can happen.
…And that the unbelievable hope may one day become matter of fact.

Our religious values place a demand upon us. Our principles remind us to listen with an open heart. When we begin from a place of respect, we can find a way forward. When we turn down the volume we can hear the facts – we can find the shared values. But when we isolate ourselves tightly within our philosophical gated-communities, we not only keep out other views, but we also keep ourselves trapped behind the fences of our own making. Our principles remind us that as the natural world is mutually interdependent, so are we. This is not solely a biological reality. It is also an emotional reality, and a spiritual truth. Our hearts need openness to flourish. Our minds need openness to learn. So too do our spirits need the breadth of community – in all its messiness and difference – to grow.

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  1. #1 by Kellyann on February 27, 2013 - 1:28 pm

    Good stuff here, Jude!

    I notice the same rhetoric, and the same forgetting-one’s-opponent-is-a-human-being, in Town Meetings here in Vermont. We’re all face-to-face, and many of the older crowd (some of the younger, too!) don’t have computers, don’t even have email addresses, much less Facebook pages. Yet people talk the same way, dehumanizing others, wanting to strip rights and privileges of others away even though those others are right there next to them. I think it’s more about ideology than social media – once ideological fervor takes over, it becomes an us-versus-them struggle. (Though I’m sure a lot of these folks have cable . . . hmm . . . It might be interesting to do a poll around media and politics at Town Meeting!)

    • #2 by revjudegeiger on February 27, 2013 - 1:31 pm

      Thanks! I’m sorry to hear rhetoric is alive and well face-to-face as well.

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