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A Better World, A Meaningful Life: A Service at the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee

Written by Zoe Weil | Published on May 17, 2010 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2010/05/17/a-better-world-a-meaningful-life-a-service-at-the-first-unitarian-society-of-milwaukee/

I recently had the great honor and joy of being the first Morton Series Lecturer on individual responsibility at the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee (FUSM), and below you’ll find a copy of what I shared at the services on April 25.

Last week I read Erik Reece’s essay, “In the Presence of Rock and Sky” in the April issue of The Sun magazine. Reece is a writer and environmental advocate who has written about strip mining in the Appalachians, and in this essay he shares his experience in Norway, the land of his ancestors. He explores Norwegian cultural perspectives, extolling Norwegian virtues of modesty, humility, and environmental stewardship. When he contrasts Norwegian values with the atrophy of empathy in our culture, he shares the following personal story which I’m going to quote in full:

“One morning a few years ago, on a visit to New York City, I was trying to navigate the subway when a train approached my platform. A throng of businesspeople rushed from it, and in that mad dash someone’s careless foot came down on the slender white cane of a blind man, breaking it. He fell to the concrete and reached furiously around for the remnants of his shattered cane. No one, including me, stopped to help him. ‘Do I have all the pieces?’ he cried out. Bystanders showed no sign of listening. I stood there, paralyzed. Why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t anybody else? Had we all inoculated ourselves against such daily pathos? Would I be embarrassed in front of these New Yorkers, to be seen helping this man – embarrassed by my empathy? Finally a man in a yarmulke stooped to gather up the scattered sections of the blind man’s cane, then helped him up the stairs to the street. And that simple act stung me with a shame I carried for days.”

When I read this paragraph I was honestly stunned. First of all, I grew up in New York City, and New Yorkers are not, despite our reputations, callous, unfriendly, unhelpful people. In fact, when my mother took a fall a couple of years ago, within moments two people had come to her aid. Sure, there are nasty New Yorkers, and sure the “bystander effect,” in which the likelihood of helping another declines as the number of witnesses rises, influences whether we’ll come to someone’s aid, but it is astounding to me that Reece observed so fully the details of this blind man’s fall, from the stepping on the cane, to his cries for help, to the lack of response, to the final denouement when Reece watches a man in a yarmulke lead the blind man up the stairs and to the street and yet Reece still did nothing. Apparently, he was not among those rushing to get on the subway himself or he would not have been able to observe all this and in such vivid detail. No, he just watched. And then felt a shame he, quote, “carried for days.”

It’s hard for me to imagine someone carrying such shame for only days. I like to think that a person who did nothing as a blind man fell before their eyes after his cane had been broken by a careless passerby (whether or not he cried for help) would feel some shame for the rest of their life – not a destructive shame but an instructive shame that helps to transform them. I like to think that like Reece, they would seek to understand their lack of response and wonder about the ways in which their culture molded them into a person who fails to help another in distress, but I would hope that they wouldn’t generalize to the degree Reece did, elevating Norway and decrying America’s loss of empathy and simply stop there. After all, the bystander effect, in full force in Reece’s subway story, could happen in Oslo, too. Even in his essay, Reece shares the response of a Norwegian man (with whom he says he does some U.S.-bashing) to Norway’s low crime rate and the Norwegian responds, “We don’t have that many people here. If we had as many people as you do in America, we’d have a lot of crazies, too.”

No, I think there is different lesson here, one Reece neglected to explore. When we only blame our culture for our behavior, we implicitly fail to take responsibility for ourselves and our choices. The truth is that while the systems around us powerfully affect our behavior and choices, we are still responsible for our choices, and we are also responsible for our efforts to transform inhumane or destructive systems to the best of our ability.

In the story, “The Emperor and the Seed,” that Kim shared, we meet the character Ling, a boy who demonstrates perseverance by never giving up on the seed the emperor bestowed upon him; honesty by not planting a new seed like the other children, and courage by bringing his bare pot to the emperor’s gathering, ready to face ridicule by his peers and possible anger and grave disappointment from the emperor. Ling has grown up in the same culture as his peers, with children who quickly resorted to deceit, but if deception is a cultural norm, Ling will have none of it. No, Ling takes responsibility for himself and his actions and in doing so embodies several of the best qualities of human beings. The wise emperor recognizes that leadership requires that we are virtuous, true to our values and beliefs, committed to our own integrity. Thus, Ling’s great virtue brings him great power.

I have come to believe that when we consciously put our deepest values into practice in our lives, embodying them through our daily choices and interactions as well as our acts of citizenship, our work, and our efforts at transforming unjust, unsustainable and inhumane systems into ones that are peaceful and restorative, we become more powerful than we may ever have imagined. We may not become emperors like Ling, but we become effective changemakers for whom meaning, purpose and joy are daily experiences. We become agents of our lives instead of cowardly or apathetic bystanders.

I don’t need to describe the world’s grave threats and problems to you. Most Unitarians are aware of such challenges as global warming, genocide, escalating worldwide slavery, institutionalized animal cruelty, habitat destruction and extinction of species, lack of access to clean water, poverty, and so on. You didn’t come to church today to hear a litany of woes. But I suspect that many, if not most of you, are deeply concerned about these issues, and that for some of you, they may bring dark nights of the soul, may take you to the edge of despair, may bring such fear for your children and grandchildren’s future that instead of feeling empowered to make a difference, you may become too despondent to act.

And so here’s my good news, the news that I hope will stir your soul, inspire your good works, enliven your spirit, help bring about solutions to our challenges, and, simultaneously, bring you a large measure of inner peace:

What you do matters. You, acting from your values and using your talents, can make a difference, and when you choose to do this, you will likely find, as Joan Baez put it so beautifully, that “Action is the antidote to despair,” a beautiful win-win in which your effort brings about positive change for others while powerfully enriching your own life.

Let me give you some examples of individuals whose work to change unjust, inhumane, or problematic systems have led to significant, sometimes amazing positive effects in the world.

Many of you have likely heard of Mohammad Yunus. He was an economics professor in Bangladesh, and during the terrible famine in his country he wondered what all his education was for if he couldn’t help the poorest people starving all around him. So he visited a village and asked 42 people what they needed. They considered his question and came back to him saying that collectively they needed $27 to bring rice to market. He loaned them this money and thus launched the microcredit movement. Mohammad Yunus came to believe that the typical banking system – where you have to have money (or collateral) in order to borrow money – didn’t make sense, and he wanted to change it. Those with nothing most needed loans. So he opened Grameen Bank to provide small loans to very poor people, mostly women, so that they could lift themselves out of poverty. He had a 95% loan repayment, and microcredit slowly began to sweep the world lifting millions of people out of poverty. Now people like us can go to a website like kiva.org and make small loans to people around the world, choosing the individuals and the businesses we wish to support.

Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize. Not the Nobel Prize in Economics mind you, but the Nobel Peace Prize, because when we end poverty, we create peace. One man, one idea, created a revolution. Recently, Mohammad Yunus came up with a new idea – social businesses. Instead of the either/or of for-profit or not-for-profit corporations, Mohammad Yunus is promoting social businesses that make a profit doing a social good. His new book, Creating a World Without Poverty, describes what we might achieve with this third approach to business.

So now I’ll tell you about someone who’s following this new business model. Dara O’Rourke was a UC Berkeley professor who was putting sunscreen on his 5-year-old daughter when he suddenly wondered what was really in this stuff he was smearing on his child. So he did some research and found out there was a toxic ingredient in it. He realized that while he had the wherewithal to find out this information, other parents might not, because we don’t have transparent production systems in which consumers have access to knowledge about the ingredients or full effects of the things we buy and use. So he put together a team of scientists and technology experts and launched goodguide.com, a for-benefit business to provide consumers – that’s all of us – with the most comprehensive, credible, and useful information so that we can make conscious and conscientious choices about what we buy. In so doing, O’Rourke is hoping that our collective conscientious choicemaking will influence companies so that more humane, sustainable, and healthy products are produced in the future.

Here’s a third person. Back in the mid-1970s a man named Henry Spira, a gruff union organizer and teacher, learned about product testing on animals, an entrenched system in which products from cosmetics to dish soap to oven cleaner are put into the eyes of conscious rabbits, force-fed to animals in quantities that kill, and smeared on their abraded skin all without painkillers or anesthesia. Wanting to do something to stop this, he had an idea. In 1980, he took out a full-page ad in the New York Times with a photo of a rabbit with its eyes blacked out and the caption, “How many rabbits does Revlon blind for beauty’s sake?” Within a year Revlon had donated three quarters of a million dollars to research alternatives to animal tests and soon after discontinued their own animal tests, followed by many other companies. Now, largely thanks to Henry Spira and the movement he launched with that ad, we can buy personal care and cleaning products that aren’t tested on animals. I’m guessing many people in this church already seek out such products, looking for the leaping bunny logo or the words “cruelty-free” on products so that you don’t participate in cruel animal tests. You can do this because one man had an idea and launched a movement to change a system.

Here’s another story, this one about a woman who decided to use her professional training to change an unjust system. Her name is Katie Redford, and when she was a law student she visited Burma and discovered the human rights atrocities being perpetrated by a military dictatorship that was securing a pipeline through Burmese villages for the California company, Unocal. Invoking an obscure 18th century law called the Alien Tort Claims Act, Katie Redford wrote a paper in law school arguing that Americans should be able to sue U.S. companies for their human rights abuses abroad. She got an A. For some that might have been the end of their effort, but Katie Redford’s work had just begun. It took her nine years with a team of other lawyers to bring her case to court. And she won. And as the lawyers here know, setting a precedent in the law is system-changing. Katie Redford harnessed her passion and her skill as a lawyer to create a system change in American jurisprudence.

Now I’ll tell you my idea for creating change. The system I want to change is schooling. Currently, if you ask most people, “What is the purpose of schooling?” they’ll likely say something like this: that it is to provide verbal, mathematical and scientific literacy, along with some basic historical and other knowledge, so that our graduates can find jobs and compete in the global economy. So here’s a thought-experiment for you. Imagine if every child in the U.S. were to pass their No Child Left Behind tests with flying colors and either find a job after high school or go to college and find a job or go to college and graduate school and find a job so that we had 100% employment. Would we think that we were successful at meeting our educational goals? My guess is that most people would say yes. But I don’t believe this is enough. Given the grave problems in the world, I don’t think preparing our children to enter a workforce that perpetuates many of those problems is good enough. I think we need a bigger purpose for schooling. Beyond verbal, mathematical and scientific literacy, which are obviously foundational, I believe that we should provide all students with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be solutionaries for a better world so that, whatever careers they pursue, they will be committed to making sure that they are creating healthy, just, and humane systems through their professions, whether they’re engineers, urban planners, custodians, politicians, fashion designers, businesspeople, health care providers, and so on. I’m working for the day when schools have as many solutionary teams solving problems as there are debate teams arguing about who is right and wrong in fabricated either/or scenarios. Just imagine how quickly we could solve all the pressing challenges of our time if we raised such a generation to be fully engaged and knowledgeable citizens and changemakers.

So I’ve described a few people and their ideas. What issues in the world concern you most? What systems do you want to change? What ideas come to mind? What skills and talents do you have? How can you bring those skills and talents together with your ideas? You may not have answers come to you immediately, but I urge you to ponder these questions and don’t stop until you’ve hit upon your great idea. Because just like Mohammad Yunus and Dara O’Rourke and Katie Redford and Henry Spira and a host of solutionaries in the world, you can make a difference, too. And there is little that will be as fulfilling and satisfying as that. As each of us finds our calling to create positive change; as each of us takes responsibility for ourselves and our choices, we find great joy. And at the same time we will leave the next generation a better world, resting a bit easier that we’ve done our part, not burdened by a shame that we failed to act.

Unless an idea has already popped into your head, you may wonder how you will find your calling and embrace it fully. There may be a voice inside you that says you’re too busy or too old or too young or too focused on raising your family or caring for your elderly parents. Some have said to me after hearing my talks, “Zoe, I’m no Gandhi.” Well, as children’s advocate, Marion Wright Edelman once said, “A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi to come back, but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.”

In my book, Most Good, Least Harm, I interviewed three people whose lives, each very different from one another’s, represented to me a profound and moving effort to make a difference in the world. One of those people is Kim Korona, who just shared the story of “The Emperor and the Seed,” and in the interview for my book Kim said this:

“There are so many problems in the world, and I used to wonder what the most important work was. Then I realized I needed to ask myself a different question. Based on who I am, how can I best serve the world? We must consider our best talents and strongest interests, and discover how we can put the two together.”

Kim went on to say that some may wonder if such a life might be difficult because of the sacrifices they may be called upon to make, but as she said, “I find that as one realizes the positive impact one is having, nothing feels like a sacrifice. Life feels rejuvenating because it isn’t superficial.”

I don’t know if I have convinced you. To be honest, even I, someone who has spent my whole adult life working to bring humane education to people across the globe in an effort to create a peaceful, sustainable, and humane world, have days when I think that we will not succeed. But even in those moments, I choose to work just as hard, because whether or not I reach my lofty goals, I still have to live with myself and having integrity is its own reward. I want to die knowing I did my best. The alternative, giving into apathy, is soul death and cowardice. It is no life. And it brings the sting of shame, which I do not want to carry. And so I consciously and tenaciously choose effort and optimism, and I urge you to do so, too.

Alex Steffen, founder of Worldchanging.com, calls optimism a political act. He says, “Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience. What’s really radical is being willing to look right at the problems we face and still insist that we can solve them.”

So imagine if we promised each other and ourselves that we would solve the problems we’ve created and improve all of our lives in the process. Imagine the world we would create. Imagine the joy and inner peace we would experience. We are already on the way to creating such a world. The question is, will we succeed?

The answer begins with each of us, which means it begins with you and me.

And so, may each of us commit to both proximal and far-reaching kindnesses. May we always stop and help an individual in need and may we harness our skills and match them with our passions to bring about a better world for all.

I will end today with two quotes, the first from William Penn:

“If there is any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not deter or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”

And the second from Unitarian Minister, Edward Everett Hale:

“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do.”

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind and Claude and Medea

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