A few weeks of vacation have given me the time to read more deeply and widely than is my custom. One of the books I’m part of the way through this month is Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History. Bregman makes the counter-intuitive argument that notwithstanding our “nice guys finish last” assumptions about how the world works, the opposite is actually true.
His thesis is that the essential human instinct is towards kindness and generosity and that moreover the ability to collaborate and cooperate are essential factors in our species’ ability to survive.
It turns out that we’ve either often misunderstood or willfully mischaracterized Darwin. A recent Washington Post article I saw, entitled “Survival of the Friendliest,” describes the work of two scientists at Duke University, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. They posit that it is friendliness and cooperation that has allowed some species to thrive and others to become extinct. They point out that dogs are the “friendly” descendants of wolves. Wolves are on the brink of extinction whereas dogs are decidedly not.
There is a story from the Cherokee Nation that offers some important wisdom on this point:
One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.
He said, “my son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “which wolf wins?”
The elderly Cherokee brave simply replied, “the one that you feed.”
The message in this parable is that each one of us gets to choose what kind of person we want to be. It is not a foregone conclusion that one or the other wolf will prevail. We get to decide which set of instincts we will nurture and develop.
Are we going to indulge our darker instincts and become wolves of anger, envy and all of the other destructive sins enumerated by the grandfather?
Or, will we feed the wolf of joy, peace, love and the other instincts leading us toward goodness?
Speaking for myself, I know that I’ve been trying very hard not to feed the wolf of anger, sorrow, regret, and self-pity, just to name a few of my vices. That’s not easy as there is certainly enough going on these days to justify all those feelings and more.
However, the science suggests that our very survival depends on feeding the virtues of hope, serenity, kindness, empathy, and generosity.
One hundred and forty-five years ago today, on June 19th in 1865, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and with the defeat of Confederate forces by the Union Army, the last remaining slaves in Galveston, Texas were freed, ending chattel slavery in the United States. Today, June 19th or Juneteenth, is observed in most parts of the country with parades, family gatherings and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In addition, the great poem, Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson is often either read or sung. Johnson’s poem was set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson and is included in The Episcopal Church’s The Hymnal 1982. It is sometimes referred to as “The Black National Anthem.”
The poetry speaks for itself and so I offer it below.
If you want to listen to it sung, there are a number of versions on YouTube. My favorite is this one featuring the great bass opera singer Soloman Howard.
Lift every voice and sing Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, Till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast by Thy might Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand. True to our God, True to our native land.
We are now almost through the month-long observance of Ramadan.
A few weeks ago I came across the following quote: “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.” This hadith from the Sahih al-Bukhari doesn’t mince words. It seems particularly apt at the moment.
Ramadan will last until May 23rd. It is the holiest month of the year in the Islamic calendar, during which the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Mohammad. It is observed through prayer and by fasting from sunup to sundown, amongst other traditions throughout the month.
In past years, I’ve had the pleasure of being invited by Muslim friends to share in the breaking of the fast at sundown with an Iftar during Ramadan. In this era of physical distancing, large celebratory Iftars will be difficult if not impossible for most people.
Our home is not far from a mosque, and it is always a delight to see children and their families dressed up in their finest outfits making their way to worship on Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan. The excitement and joy is infectious.
I’ll add these pleasures to the long list of things I am grieving, just as I grieve the Easter and Passover celebrations prevented by the pandemic. Indeed, Muslims, Christians and Jews have all paid a heavy price as the most holy days for each faith are coinciding with the tragedy of COVID-19.
In my post from last month, I quoted T.S. Elliot’s observation in his poem, The Waste Land, that April was the cruelest month. Let us pray that during the month of May the “gates of hell are closed and the devils are chained.”
(Photo credit: Mihrab (Prayer Niche) from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The first section of T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, The Waste Land, published in 1922, is entitled, “The Burial of the Dead.”
That is the title of the funeral service from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer during Eliot’s time as it is the title of the service in The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer today.
The Rite for the Burial of the Dead seems an appropriate place to start under the circumstances in which we are currently living. There are likely going to be lots of funerals in the days and weeks to come. Some for people we know, love, and have lost.
Eliot’s poem then opens with the following lines:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Each of the first three lines of Eliot’s poem starts in darkness and moves to life-giving activity: breeding, mixing, stirring.
By ending each line with a word that brings the reader out of darkness into light, from death into life, Eliot takes the reader into the future—a future that is more abundant than the past.
This April will surely be remembered as one of the cruelest of all time for our country and the world. We are told that we are now in the midst of the darkest hours of the COVID-19 Pandemic here in New York City, with heartbreaking death rates. Even as I write this, unending ambulance sirens pierce through the silence of the traffic-less streets below my window.
And, at the same time, we must hold onto the knowledge that we will come through this moment. As Eliot’s poem shows, darkness will give way to light, death will be vanquished by life. Breeding, mixing, and stirring will prevail. Lilacs will bloom out of dull roots.
This April, as dark and as cruel as life around us may seem, look for the lilacs blooming out of dull roots. They’re there
It has been almost two weeks since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
I don’t know about you, but that seems like a lifetime ago. So much has changed so quickly I’m not sure what to feel at any given point.
I woke up a few mornings ago and realized that not knowing what to feel actually provides me with the opportunity to choose how I’m going to feel.
Last week, a colleague reminded me of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah’s admonition:
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
The great South African theologian Steve De Gruchy took the concept of hope a step further and once said that “We are called to be midwives of hope.”
The COVID-19 Pandemic is testing us in ways that few imagined just a few weeks ago. The cost—human, economic, social—is huge and growing. It is easy to lose hope in these times. But as the prophet Zechariah and De Gruchy remind us: despair is not an option.
Not only must we remain hopeful ourselves, but we must also bring hope to others. We can do this through our own acts every day—with our coworkers, our family members and our neighbors. By doing so we are united with one another through our common humanity.
Moreover, that is where we will find God.
It is through that strength of unity that we can be of real service to those in need even as we face challenges like the COVID-19 Pandemic. We are only going to get through this by working together.
My prayer for each of you is that you can find the hope of which Zechariah reminds us so that you can continue to be a midwife of hope for others.
Prior to my recent trip to Antarctica, I confess that I had not given penguins much consideration. Not beautiful. Smell bad. Can’t fly.
Really, what was the point of a penguin?
Now, however, I have a new appreciation for the penguin.
As our ship lay at anchor off Deception Island in the Antarctic Ocean, we looked at its black volcanic rock-covered beach where we planned to make our landing. From a distance one could see tens of thousands of chinstrap penguins marching in and out of sea. White breasts headed in. Black backs headed out.
Once on the shore, the sound of the birds cheerfully chatting and squawking at each other soon distracted from the smell. We made our way up the beach, to the nesting area, where we observed what could best be described as the shift-change between parents.
While one parent tends the nest and their chicks, the other parent makes its way down to the sea to fish for their offspring. During the fishing expedition, taking the penguin as far away as 50 miles, the penguin gorges on food, returning to relieve its mate and feed its offspring.
After a brief check in and handoff, the other parent heads down to the sea for its turn to fish. The remaining parent takes its place on the nest and supervises the chicks. Male and female penguins share this responsibility equally.
Watching well over 50,000 penguins do this over several hours, I began to reconsider the penguin. Several things impressed me then and remain with me still.
Penguins are loyal. Penguins commit to a mate and then their offspring. Moreover, a penguin can find and recognize both its mate and its chicks amongst tens of thousands of others, even after wandering miles away on land and sea.
Penguins are humble. Not known for its beauty, vanity is not a vice in which a penguin can afford to indulge. It sits in its own guano patiently waiting and tending its offspring while its mate fishes.
Penguins are determined. As a penguin makes its way single-mindedly back and forth between the ocean and its nest, it encounters many obstacles. Rocks, icebergs, predators, rain, sleet, snow, other penguins. And yet, the penguin presses on in its mission to take care of its family.
Penguins are brave. The penguin world is full of bigger and meaner beasts than they are. Leopard seals stalk the shoreline as penguins dive into the sea to fish. Skua birds cruise the skies looking for a moment to swoop in and snatch a chick. Yet the penguin goes about its business with courage.
Loyalty. Humility. Determination. Bravery.
These are not choices a penguin makes. Evolution has made them necessary characteristics for their survival.
However, they are choices we can make.
What would our world be like if we all chose to be unfailingly loyal, humble, determined, and brave?
Let me stipulate from the start that I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. It seems like one is setting oneself up for failure. And that’s not a good way to start a new year. I have lots of hopes for 2020. And consequently, I find myself a bit embarrassed to have actually made some resolutions for this year.
My family had the good fortune to take a trip to Antarctica. Normally such a trip would be way beyond our budget. However, a dear family friend left me a bequest that made it possible for us to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip. I know I should have paid down the mortgage, but this friend loved to travel and so I thought it more appropriate to honor her memory by creating some of our own memories. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
One of the unexpected pleasures of the trip was that we all disconnected from the internet for ten days. No news. No social media. No email. No podcasts. Suddenly we could be fully present both in our shared experience and for each other. What a joy it was! The news blackout was a particular gift. I suddenly realized how much bandwidth I allocate to following current events and how much it drags my mood down. So that brings me to my first resolution: take a Sabbath once a week from electronic devices (with the exception of my Kindle, for pleasure reading).
In the lead up to Christmas I participated in a 360 assessment at work. Fifteen of my colleagues anonymously filled out a 50-question survey providing feedback on my performance. It’s very brave to offer candid advice and assessment about the boss, even anonymously, and I’m very grateful to them for doing so.
It was with some trepidation that I met with the consultant to go over the results. Somewhat to my surprise I found the feedback very affirming. Not that there aren’t areas for me to work on. There are. However, there is close alignment between what my colleagues would like to see me do differently and what I’d like to do differently. Turns out I can sometimes be a micromanager. I’ll own that. That’s not my intention, of course, but I can certainly see how my focus on detail and irritation when things don’t go exactly as I want them to is experienced as micromanagement. So that brings me to my second resolution: try not to sweat the small stuff.
Finally, this blog is going to be my third resolution: try for once a month and see if that’s sustainable.
In my experience the declaration that “I’m spiritual but not religious” is often greeted by a collective eye-roll in church circles. For many of us affiliated with formal church or faith organizations, it can seem a ridiculous thing to say.
What we think we’re hearing is “I’m spiritual but not yet religious.”
Since taking up my role as president of Episcopal Relief & Development over 13 years ago, many people have kindly sent me articles and books about leadership. How is it recognized? How is it developed? What does it look like in a faith context? How can one be a non-anxious leader? You get the picture.
I read much of what was sent to me as I searched for my vision of how I want to be a leader. After over 25 years serving in various leadership roles, I can’t say that I subscribe to one school or genre of leadership.
So much depends on context and how one’s personal gifts and graces (or lack thereof) interact with circumstances and the people you are trying to lead. I’m reminded of the quip about pornography—it doesn’t have a definition, but you sure know it when you see it.
Nonetheless I am always intrigued by new and interesting takes on leadership.