“What are We Doin’ Here Anyway?”
Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan
West Seattle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
December 16, 2007
What a special privilege today for our congregation to welcome and bless so many children into life, and into our community. We hope for our children, that they will be joyful, wise, and loved people…
Which raises a question that our children will ask themselves a thousand times in different ways, and through different struggles,—who am I? …
This is the question that was asked at an international conference in Takyama Japan, attended by invitation only, by physicists, monks, high ranking elected officials, philosophers, artists, theologians and university presidents. Their original focus was “Creating the future of humanity,” but they found that they couldn’t address that question adequately without asking, the critical question, “what is human?”
The person at the conference who asked this question first was a man named Frederick Franck. Frederick had already led an interesting life. Born in Holland, on the border with Belgium,… as a young boy in 1914 he saw the invasion of Belgium by Germany, and looking down from his flat he tells of seeing tattered people walking around devastated by war. That is when he would first begin to ask the questions…who are they? Are they like us? Why are they so sad? are they human? What is human?
In his book To Be Human Against all Odds, Franck writes about major spiritual mentors who helped him begin to answer his questions. Franck, a dentist, ran a dental clinic for a decade with Albert Schweitzer in Africa. Schweitzer became a profound mentor for him, and teaching him to internalize a reverence for all life.
Another mentor was a tiny wrinkled Japanese Zen priest, named Suzuki, who taught him about seeing things as they are. The meaning of life, said the priest, is to see oneself and other life without delusion or prejudice, to see into life, to reflect on it, not just look AT it. Franck would ask Suzuki “what is zen”-- to which the priest replied, “when you ask ‘what is zen’ you are asking ‘who am I’ and when you ask ‘who am I’ you are asking ‘what is it to be human?’”
So as Franck spent his last evening in Japan he would keep asking reflecting on the question, “what is it to be human?” This poem flowed out of him:
When we return to where we have always been
We do not have to ask
Whether in East or West,
What it means when it is said of a man:
He is so human;
Of a woman, she is a real human being.
So do not ask for we all know it, just as we know:
This water is cold, is warm,
This fruit is sweet, is sour,
We know what it is to be human,
We know there is no future without peace,
No peace without human justice,
To reflect on this we are gathered here…
Franck was invited to return to Japan to address the same assembly on “Criteria for being Human.” His paper summarized the concept of the triune human brain—the reptilian portion that knows all it needs to know to mate, breed, groom, migrate and fight. The mammalian brain that allows humans to nurture its young, be playful, to adapt to its environment creatively, to speak, and to reason.
The third part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, evolved just 40-50,000 years ago the time marking the emergence of human. This cortex allows us to be aware of ourselves, to reflect, and to have foresight and imagination. This part of the brain at times restrains the stirrings of reptilian responses, and gives us the potential, but not the mandate, for being empathetic and compassionate. Franck told the gathering that empathy and conscious awareness is what makes us human. And, Franck concluded, that the extent to which we develop these qualities and act on them, is the extent to which we bring about peace, justice, insight, and compassion.
As I read Franck’s book, I had to ask myself, just how well are we humans meeting his challenge. Which part of our brain is winning out? It would be easy to go into despair over the stories of those whose actions fill the newscasts with tragedy after tragedy—shooters in malls, suicide bombers, parents whose limited frustration tolerance results in child abuse, homophobic harassment, CIA officials who water board and then think information gained is valid, Presidents whose speeches about dead soldiers just don’t feel like he really cares.
I don’t know if humans will ever be able to end our practice of war, wars over ideology, freedom, and resources. Perhaps peace will always be only a pause in a cycle of human affairs. War is complex. Wayne and I were in Dublin a few years back. We were looking for a pub where we could hear some “real” Irish music—not people who were being paid to entertain the tourists, but Irish people singing with and for each other, who would let us join in. Having been given a tip on where to go, we were walking down the street in search of “Donavan’s Pub” when we began to hear singing. As we entered the building we entered a very full room of people, standing room only, men and women, but mostly men, talking in circles throughout the large room, waiters moving through the smoke with pints of Guinness.
On one side there was a large group of people singing, so we slowly made our way towards them. They weren’t singing Danny Boy or Cockles and Muscles. The songs they sang were unfamiliar to us. But as we listened to the words, we began to hear the sentiments—“Free the people…Let them have their say! Free the people, Let them see the light of day!” (sung) They were singing songs against the British in northern Ireland, …rebel songs…
About the time we finished our beer, one of the husky older singers leaned over to us and asked us where we were from, “Seattle, in the States” we said. Then he gave us his most steely eye, and asked: “Which side would you ‘be on?” We were stunned! We had come to just hear some good Irish music, and now we were being asked to take up a side in the war! If we knew what was good for us, we would know to say “Republic of Ireland.” My heart was pounding at that point, and Wayne was quick to say “sure’n we are on your side.”
And indeed, that is where my heart lies…He smiled and ordered two beers for us, welcoming us to join in the singing, which we did for the rest of the evening. We met Peter and Sean, and red headed Mary. We met Belfast Joe, an IRA member. Sean called out to Joe, “tell these people from Seattle how you lost your arm!” He replied, “Fuse was too short!” and the crowd laughed.
There was a love and camaraderie that the war provided my Irish people, despite the tragedy of it all. War is complex. After a couple hours we bid every one a good evening, and stepped back outside, breathing in the crisp smoke free air, and breathing out a sigh of relief and of exhilaration, glad to have had the privilege of experiencing these real people. But also aware of how easy it is to get caught up in strife that is not ours.
When a people are hurt by war it is difficult to not take sides. Certainly as a nation we have had our own experience with this… after 9-11, though it was unclear at first, exactly who are enemy was. Still our leaders stirred us up and whipped up the frenzied nearly unanimous vote in congress to go to war. And we saw how our country got carried away with believing rumors, leading us into this most destructive time in our nation’s history. How quickly and easily we move into fear, and respond without reflection and careful analysis.
On a day to day basis, in our private lives, most of us do well being peaceful, and acting kindly. Oh sure, we all occasionally want a little revenge and retribution, but that’s not the predominant manner of our lives. Usually we hear of people who put aside their survival needs to help others….the young men down in Chehalis who risked their lives and dove into the water to save a man knocked down and injured in several feet of water in his home. And the man down in Lewis County who risked his life to pull and swim with as many of his cattle as he could until hyperthermia set in.
And the most moving story recently has been about the twenty-six year old Mexican bricklayer who had crossed illegally into Arizona to find good paying work to support his family--when after two days of walking, and 50 miles out of Tucson, he came across a young boy whose mother crashed their van 300 feet down into a canyon. She was pinned and eventually died. The boy was wandering and disoriented. Temperatures dropped and Jesus Manuel Cordova gave the boy his jacket, built a fire, and scavenged some snacks from the wreck to feed him. Rather than continuing on to Tucson to find work, Jesus selflessly stayed with the boy until they could flag down someone who could help them. Unfortunately that meant that Jesus was arrested and sent back to Mexico.
How can we help our children become these kinds of reflective, giving human beings? Truly the atmosphere we create for our children in this congregation and in our homes makes all the difference in helping our children to not only look at others deeply but to see into their own lives with empathy and compassion. As we listen carefully and attentively to our children, we teach them how to be present with others. In our homes, our children learn most powerfully by example, but also by being asked to contribute to the care of the family. A powerful lesson is to have a pet whose needs we talk about, and whose care our children can be at least partially in charge of. Learning to care for people and pets is a most powerful lesson. When we think about the future of humanity, the role of parenting is the most important role of all.
Huston Smith, the professor of religion and philosophy at Syracuse, tells the story about their taking their little 2 year old grandson to the park to play. There two Asian American children were playing…and before long the 8 year old girl came up to them and asked them “Do you know what we are?” Huston’s wife Kendra replied “Vietnamese”? “No” was the reply. “Filipino?” “No” with a touch of irritation beginning. When a third lineage didn’t hit the mark either, the response was “NO! What are we?” Kendra sensed she needed to take a different approach, and so she said, “I don’t know, what are you?” “We are brother and sister, so we love each other.” Out of the mouths of babes who have been taught by their elders to define our essence—for we are all brothers and sisters, and have been given the ability to love.
But the challenge we face is to expand our care and concern from the locus of our family and our tribe to the whole human race and all life on earth. I believe that this is our spiritual evolutionary challenge today, and that technology is opening up new possibilities for feeling kinship with those half-way around the world.
Of course there is no guarantee that we will learn to expand our caring fast enough and pervasively enough beyond our closest tribe. If we do not, it is very possible that we may kill each other off, which in the long run, may not be so bad for the earth. I once visited a zoologist in charge of mammals at the San Diego zoo when I was studying the peaceful bonobos, our closest ape relatives, who are being wiped out by declining habitat and poaching—and when I asked her what it would take for the bonobos to survive, she said it would take a virus which would wipe out most humans. That was from a very intelligent, thoughtful Ph.D.
There are many myths about who we humans are. Some say we are the most powerful and conscious species on earth, and some say that we are the consciousness of an evolving cosmos. Others say that we are arrogant to think so, that other creatures are conscious also and that perhaps a tiny microscopic species may end up being the most powerful of all.
What we do know is that we have a responsibility to use our power wisely—and to do that-- the first step is, as the Zen teacher Suzuki taught, to see wisely—and I believe that means to understand the absolute extent of the interdependence of all people and all of life.
We must throw out the archaic biblical tenant that humans are here to have dominion over all life—and instead see that our domination is killing the earth. We must stop being in denial, we must submit to the laws of this wonderful planet that feeds us and clothes us and warms us, upon which we were born through no merit or choice of our own, and we must see that we as a human race are destroying it!!!
Many powerful people in positions of authority in our nation and in
American corporations, are operating out of their reptilian brains,
saying “I want, I want….I want more profits, I want more power, I want
more control, I want conformity to MY beliefs, I want to control who
you love,… I want, I want. Selfish, self-centered, narcissistic,
ignoring the realities of our biosphere.
This past week in Bali, Indonesia at the International Conference on global warming, our country’s policies were labeled as the villain, because we refuse to commit to specific targets for reducing greenhouse gasses. Our country is being condemned for its selfishness and lack of action. Some say we have only 10 more years before the tipping point.
We have been through a long period of insanity in this country, for decisions made have had a deleterious effect upon our environment, our economy, our health care, our civil liberties, and our relations with our allies. We are all hopeful that soon we will have some changes in direction and repairs in each of these areas. But changes come only from the cumulative effect of each of us saying what we think, and communicating with our leaders, and voting for those we believe will most respect nature, and those who understand in their bones the need to give full civil rights to all people.
Voting for people who will take climate change directly into new legislation to require our country to become a leader in this life crisis, not the villain. Voting for people who will spend our resources on international programs of good will, not billions of dollars on uncalled for war. Voting for people who truly understand that freedom of religion means freedom from having one person’s personal religious beliefs restrict the civil rights of others.
So what are we humans doin’ here? Well, if we are smart…if we use those evolved brains of ours…
We are here to develop our capacities to see life on this planet more deeply, to be conscious and aware of the interdependence of all of life.
The salvation of this world and our human place within it, lies in both our heads and in our hearts,
in our power to reflect and our power to feel humility with other life,
it lies in our being responsible to something higher than our own needs,
and in something beyond the profits of our workplace.
Salvation will require of us reverence for life.
And amidst it all, in the particulars of our lives, I believe we are also called to enjoy life, to give and receive love, to catch each other’s smile
--so let us laugh, eat chocolate, be love, and drink in the joys of life.
May it be so, Amen