Another Year of Living Ethically
A Year of Living Ethically continues. On July 15, 2012 I spoke at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. People there seemed very interested in exploring what a year of living ethically would be for the NY Society and I'm interested to see how their year goes.
As requested, I'm posting the text of the Platform. If you register and login, you can access the document as a pdf attachment, and the full text is below.
As always, I look forward to hearing your comments and questions.
A Year of Living Ethically
Susan Rose, NY Society for Ethical Culture July 15, 2012
Ethics begins with judgment and choice, and we know that how we choose to treat others is what is most important, as the kind of world in which we live radiates from personal decisions and interactions. The values and principles that guide our choices rest on a natural interpretation of experience, and are derived from the emotional capacities and intellectual abilities of human beings and the culture they create.
Good morning. I'm happy to be here with you today.
What would it be like to have an intentional focus to live more ethically for a year? How can we pay more attention to our actions - and reactions, being more reflective in the choices we make when we interact with people, the choices we make in our daily lives, the choices we make as we try to make the world a better place? Could we do this for a year? What would we do?
This was the challenge I put to members and friends of the Ethical Society Without Walls at the beginning of last year, and one I share with you.
Since this is an Ethical Society meeting, I'm pretty sure that everyone here today has given a lot of thought to how they live their lives, how to lead ethical lives. I don't expect I'll tell you anything new, but I hope I'll give you some reminders and some opportunities for reflection, and perhaps prompts for new actions, or a renewed commitment to actions you already take.
The theme of "A Year of Living Ethically" came to me while on my way to the library one day last fall. I had heard about the books A Year of Living Biblically, and A Year of Living Like Jesus, and I was also introduced to the book No Impact Man, about a man who with his family lived with as little environmental impact as possible for a year.
Once at the library, I checked to see what books might be in the catalog with the key words "A Year of." I was surprised by the vast variety of topics. Just to give you a few: One Year to an Organized Life, A Year of Living Your Yoga, The Artist's Way Every Day: A Year of Creative Living, and even Living Oprah: my one-year experiment to walk the walk of the queen of talk.
I've found more including The Moneyless Man - about a young man who spent a year without spending a penny, The Year of Thinking Magically - Joan Didion's account of the year after her husband's sudden death and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - Barbara Kingsolver's account of her family's experiment to eat only food grown within a 250 mile radius of their home for a year.
It seems that I have a personal project of "A Year of Reading Books, About a Year of Living in a Prescribed Manner."
Of the books I've read so far, or at least skimmed, the ones I've found most interesting have been narratives, people telling of their experiences, the choices they made as they went through their years, sometimes using extreme criteria for how they were living. The intentionality of their projects had them focusing on so many decisions and choices, choices that we are all faced with on a daily basis, but often aren't paying attention, aren't aware that we have choices we can make. Having exacting and perhaps extreme criteria to live by certainly seems to make one pay attention in a more heightened manner.
Other books were rather prescriptive, such as Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project asking you to focus on friendship in June for instance. I found that I couldn't get engaged with these books and wasn't motivated to try. I realized that The Year of Living Biblically and The Year of Living Like Jesus, as well as the year of living according to Oprah's advice, were all examples of people trying to follow a specific set of rules that had been laid down for them by someone else. Not an approach that fits well with Ethical Culture.
How then would we in Ethical Culture, approach such a project? Certainly, no one would suggest a year of living like Felix Adler, our founding Leader, or John Lovejoy Elliott or Algernon Black or Barbara Raines to name a few Leaders from our history. But why is that?
In Ethical Culture we agree that keeping ethics as the central factor in our lives is important. But we do not have a book of rules, or even guidelines, to tell anyone exactly what you should do on a day-to-day basis, what actions you should or should not take.
We believe that each individual has the ability and responsibility to make his or her own ethical decisions, perhaps exploring those decisions with members of her or his Ethical Society or an Ethical Culture Leader, getting support and encouragement, even questions to consider from others who are also on the journey of living more ethical lives, but not answers.
Practicing Ethical Culture is challenging. While we don't have a "book of rules" to follow for a year, a list of things you should or shouldn't do, we do have expectations - I like to call them ethical expectations. You might have another term that works better for you, but for me, my ethical expectations are my goals, my hopes, the obligation I have to consider what the ethical course of action is in any given situation.
Stanton Coit, an early Ethical Culture Leader put together a book of readings called The Message of Man: A Book of Ethical Scriptures. In the preface Coit tells us he has gathered what he considers the best utterances concerning the Moral Life of Man. Coit put a lot of effort into making connections between writings from varying sources. Coit ends the preface telling us that the purpose of the book is to "move the reader to conscientious service."
I like the idea of having focused readings to do on a regular basis and have taken to keeping a variety of books, and other writings which ground me in my beliefs.
One of the challenges we continually face, or I continually face, as an Ethical Culturist, is to be able to live in alignment with my values. It is relatively easy to spout off my values about treating people based on the worth and dignity I believe they inherently have because they are human beings, and a lot harder sometimes, to interact with people respectfully.
The key factor in all of the books I've read about "A Year of Living…." is intentionality. What do I do each day of my life, what choices do I make? And almost all of the motivating factors in the books I have read were based on ethical decision-making. The people who chose to live their lives following a certain set of guidelines were doing so because they wanted to live their lives more in line with their values, with greater integrity.
Moneyless Man, Mark Boyle was addressing both distributive justice, and the tendency to over-consume without thinking about the impact it has. He also reminds us to seriously consider the difference between needs and wants .
No Impact Man, Colin Beaven started his project because he felt he had been concerned about Global Warming/Climate Change, but had never tried to do anything about it. He and his family made what most would consider drastic changes in their lifestyle. Beaven had the dual goals of making the changes and of inspiring others to consider the environmental impact of their own lives and what changes they might make.
He also addressed the differences in personal action and societal action, and stressed that both are necessary. We need to make changes in what we consume and how much we consume. We also need changes in societal infrastructure, things such as making it possible to travel longer distances with lower carbon footprints.
Barbara Kingsolver's family made ethical choices about how and what they eat, understanding that the impact of transporting food across hundreds, or more likely thousands of miles. They appreciated getting to know people who grew some of the food they were eating, and they had the satisfaction of raising much of the food they ate.
I found it interesting that "the year" was the unit of time chosen for each of these projects. Even more interesting to me, was that almost none of the years was a calendar year starting in January, but a year around the sun, a year of seasons, seasons which we may barely notice. But when you are growing your own food, or only buying locally grown food, seasons and weather become important.
Some of the books I read completely through had to do with mourning and grieving. These stories were different because the practices these authors undertook were more a result of an external factor than the deliberate choices the others made. They also illustrate the significance of flowing through the cycle and circle of a year.
A Year of Living Kaddish by Ari Goldman shares his practice of saying this Jewish Mourner's prayer in a minion - with at least 9 other people and the dedication and determination it takes to fulfill this daily obligation. I was especially interested to hear how this Orthodox Jew was able to grow from this practice, to follow certain prescribed rules, yet being creative about how he met the requirements of his religion. He did all this while still being part of "the modern world" as a family member and on the faculty of Columbia University.
Reading Joan Didion's book A Year of Magical Thinking soon after reading A Year of Living Kaddish, gave me an even greater appreciation for the extensive system of rules in Judaism for what to do when someone dies. Didion explores her sense of not accepting her husband's death, of having a belief that he'll come back, that everything will be ok, and how disconcerting that was for her. I found myself wondering what would her experience have been if she had been expected to follow specific practices, if she had a path to follow, a path which is designed to continually reinforce the fact that someone important in your life is dead.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch is another mourning memoir. The author reads a book a day as a way to honor and cope with the death of her sister. I can see this as one possible mourning ritual that could work well for many Ethical Culturists.
I was curious about what the experiences of all these authors would be once "their years were up." Would they immediately stop following the practices they had followed for the year and go back to their old ways? Would the way they approached life be different, how would it be different?
Without exception all of the authors decided to keep many of the changes they had made for a year, and also without exception, all of them let go of some of the practices they had adopted.
The mourners, had been through a cycle of a year, a year of paying great attention to the change in their lives caused by the death of a father, a husband, and a sister. While the mourning, the outward expressions of their grief would likely be changed and subdued, grief doesn't necessarily have an end, and can raise its painful head at either expected times, such as a birthday or anniversary, or unexpected times such as Halloween, or when you catch a scent, or see a sight that stirs a memory.
For those living out more voluntary choices, lifestyle changes, they also sustained many of the changes they made. None of the folks who had radically changed their lifestyles went back to the way they used to live. They kept with them the awareness that the choices they make have an affect on the world, on other people, and on themselves. This heightened awareness was a factor that struck me as being perhaps most important in their projects, and in the lasting changes in their approaches to life.
I don't know about you, but I find it so easy to go through life not being as aware as I would like to be, paying attention to the effects of what I'm doing. One practice I adopted for myself several years ago has helped me build my awareness.
I found myself in an extremely difficult situation at my day job. It was consuming my thoughts, making it hard for me to sleep, just had me all riled up. And then I stopped and asked myself "what does my religion tell me about how to act in this situation?"
It took me days to come to a place where I was calm enough to ask myself that question. It also took having several conversations and one person asking me how did I want to feel about myself when this situation is over? That prompted me to ask the question "What does my religion tell me about how to act in this situation?" At that point I'd been part of Ethical Culture for 50 years, and I'd never once asked myself that in such specific terms.
Once I asked the question, I quickly found my answer. Even though I was really angry about something, and my feelings were hurt too, I was able to know that the human relationship was more important than anything else and that I needed to treat the person I was angry at with respect and care, and I ought to try to elicit the best in her.
That incident took place several years ago, and I'm happy to report that my religious approach worked very well. I needed to get some support but was able to save a relationship, and have a good learning experience both for myself and the other person involved. Ethical Culture in action.
Since that time I've tried to adopt the ethical practice of asking myself what does my religion tell me about how to act in a difficult circumstance. In actuality, my religion only tells me that I need to consider the ethical aspects of the situation, but having that reminder is a big help. For me, the biggest obstacle is to take the moment to breathe, to pause, to ask myself the question, rather than my natural response which I assure you is not so calm or reasoned.
Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson talks of being aware of how we live, and recommends that we practice keeping our balance so that when we are faced with storms that might blow us off course we can more readily be grounded in our values and behave in accordance with them. She uses metaphors from circus life, balancing, juggling, building pyramids of people. She talks of how sometimes there are solo acts, sometimes dyads, sometimes groups which must work together as if their lives depend on it - which they do - just as our lives depend on our working together.
So what does this all mean for us?
ESWoW members created a group in which they were regularly checking in on issues of concern to them and thinking about how they can make changes and how they can support each other. Interestingly, it lasted about a year and some members made a strong commitment to be more aware in their lives, about how they consume and travel, how they are in relationship to other people, and what political choices and actions they are taking.
There are so many avenues to consider in trying to live a more ethical life. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, to feel the spiritual pain Felix Adler speaks of - that we can't change all the injustices in the world. But the response is, rather than being stymied by this pain, we need to be motivated to take action. We can't do it all, but we can do something.
What does it to mean to live an ethical life? Are there ways you would like to grow so that you might live more ethically? Can we support each other in living more ethically in a more intentional way?
There are all kinds of approaches one might take to decide what to focus on for a Year of Living Ethically. One way to start might be to take an ethical inventory of how you are living your life. You might want to start with appreciating what you are already doing that you are pleased with. It's important to be able to affirm ourselves, to notice what we're doing well. And then you can see if there are areas you'd like to focus on for a year, or for whatever period of time makes sense to you.
I chose two primary areas to focus on in my year of living ethically. One of them is my relationships with my children who are 22 and 25, emerging adults. This is a time of changing dynamics between us all. I'm trying to pay great attention to how I interact with each of them, remembering what it was like for me to be that age, and how I'd never want to be in my 20's again. I'm appreciative of the strengthening connections we are growing, even as we are living farther and farther apart.
My other area concerns political action - it actually contains two parts. One is to be more active in my local and state politics - something which is much more important in MA than it did several years ago even.
I hope you see A Year of Living Ethically as an exciting possibility. Perhaps you'll want to talk to others in your society and share your areas of focus. Perhaps not.
Perhaps several Ethical Societies will be interested in pursuing the project of a year of living ethically. What energy we might generate if we know that others around the country are also following a deliberate path of living more ethically.
One common quality I noticed in all of the projects I read about was that the people who pursued them for a year were so thoroughly committed to the path they were following. I had the sense that they were grabbed by an idea, and grabbed the idea back. What grabs you?
Just as these authors held onto many of the changes they made within their years, after the year was up, my hope is that not only will you embark on a year of living ethically, but a lifetime of living ethically.
Ethical Humanism connects personal living with moral responsibility to and for community. Our relationships bind us together in universal citizenship. This sense of mutuality leads us to a shared responsibility for the kind of world in which we live. Examining life through the prism of human experience, we see that we are capable of wonderful and inspiring things. We find that there is meaning in the potential for personal growth and cultural transformation.
(Opening and closing words are from the 2008 Leaders Statement on Ethical Culture.)