Sweating the Small Stuff
Guest Platform by Amanda Poppei, Acting Senior Leader of the Washington Ethical Society, September 2008
Some of you know that I've been drawn to religious leadership since I was a young teenager - that I've been thinking about it and preparing for it since then, really, studying and experiencing as much as I can to be able to serve to the best of my ability. As part of that preparation - and out of personal interest, too - I've done a fair amount of reading about different religious traditions. My interest in that subject, I think, started even before my teenage years, as I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation and participating in a Sunday School curriculum that's now called Neighboring Faiths. My Sunday School class visited a mosque, a Baptist church, a Hindu temple, a Greek Orthodox church, a Mormon church…it was a busy year. In high school, my friends were Muslim, Buddhist, and Jain…along with Christian and Jewish, both significantly more common in upstate New York! In college, my Religious Studies major included a requirement to take classes in at least three religious traditions; I chose Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Since then, I've read a good deal more about Eastern traditions, although I'm by no means an expert…but still, I think I have some sense of the most important principles, the basic tenets, the ethical requirements.
Almost all religions have an ethical component - something which Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, noticed when he sought to create a religious movement that bound people together not by belief, but by right action. In 1905, when the Ethical Culture movement was already well established, Adler wrote about the idea. "Duty may become a religion, if one remembers the cosmic significance of the moral law.” He continued, "The deepest fact about the human spirit is, that each spirit longs to come out of its isolation, and to join itself to the whole world of spirit; and though each of us differs from the rest, and though we maintain our differences, yet, despite them, we seek to relate ourselves to one another in a higher unity."
Adler is getting at something really elemental here, I think, something that is at the heart of the human experience, and therefore at the heart of the religious impulse. We want to do the right thing - we want to feel connected to each other, to treat each other well. And religion, whether it is Adler's religion of duty, his Ethical Culture movement, or whether it is Zoroastrianism or Christianity or Buddhism, religion tries to help us to choose wisely, to remember our connection to each other and the world, to behave ethically.
Behind Ethical Culture, behind almost all major world religions, is this hope for ethical action. Of course there are myriad other reasons that people gather in community, but ethical action, help in making the right choices, is almost always one of them. And so I have been wondering, as I have pursued my study of world religions, as I have tried to learn about different traditions and commandments, I have been wondering…what do all of these religions ask us to do? What is the defining question, what is the litmus test for being a good person, an ethical person - a religious person?
And I have decided that it is this: How do you drive on the Beltway? Well, that was my original formulation, at any rate, but then I remembered that actually, I don't drive on the Beltway, and I thought perhaps I shouldn't present a defining religious and ethical question from which I considered myself exempt. So here's my new formulation: How do you drive, period? How do you drive in DC traffic? And if you don't drive, how do you walk in DC traffic, how do you bike or scoot or otherwise get around?
What I mean, of course, is that this "litmus test" I am imagining, if it is found anywhere, is found in our daily lives. It's found in how we drive or how we talk to the cashier at the grocery store or how we treat our children or our parents or our co-workers. I think it's easy to get swept up in the big ethical questions, to be pulled into fascinating discussions about who we would keep on the lifeboat (the doctor or the parent?) and whether we would save the people on the train or the person tied to the tracks. But really, have most of us ever even been in a lifeboat?
There are, of course, moments in life that do call for big decisions, moments that call for us to act nobly and grandly, to act heroically. Some lives hold more of those moments than others, some periods in history hold more of those moments. But no life is made up entirely of those moments. Every life also has some time when we are just driving on the Beltway, when the decision that faces us is not whether to pull the switch for the train tracks but whether to let the car next to us cut over, even though we think they might just be trying to go faster and not heading for the exit ramp at all.
I have, for a long time, had a fantasy about driving in traffic. I don't know about you, but I often find myself wishing, while driving, that I could just explain myself a bit more, that I could explain why I swerved to the right a bit, or explain why I didn't get into the turn lane earlier, or explain why I was a few seconds late for the green light. And so I have thought that it would be so nice to have a giant flashing sign, above my car, with a variety of messages that I could choose to display. "Oops!" it might read. "I didn't see that this lane ended!" or "Thanks so much for letting me in!" And then, of course, it would be nice to have messages like, "Hey, use your blinker!" and "No, I won't turn at this light, it says no turn on red! Stop honking at me!" Driving is one of the times when I feel most filled with righteous indignation. "Excuse me!" my flashing sign would read, "but if you keep tailgating me I will just continue to tap my brakes and slow us all down. Serves you right."
We begin to see the problem with the flashing sign fantasy. Or, perhaps, the problem with driving in traffic. As ethical tests go, I'm ashamed to say that I fail this one on a regular basis. I am not a bad driver, I don't speed excessively or weave in and out of traffic or tailgate. But I do get huffy. I honk at people when they run a red light. I shake my head and glare when they cut me off. Now, in these scenarios, I may be technically "in the right," I may be the one obeying traffic laws…but I think it is fair to say that I am not living up to my ideals, to the ideals of Ethical Culture. A honking horn has rarely actually elicited the best from anyone.
And there, I think, is the tricky thing, the piece that makes my goal to drive ethically so difficult. Because Ethical Culture does not simply ask us to be right, or to follow rules, or even to do no harm. These may all be fine things to ask, and could lead to a life of reasonable, fair, caring decisions. But Ethical Culture asks us to go one further…it asks us to actually elicit the best from others.
That phrase, eliciting the best from others, is as kind of tagline around here. We know it must be religious language, because we certainly don't use the word "eliciting" a whole lot in daily life. But all it really means is that we are asked to interact with people so as to allow them to be their best selves. We want to bring out the best in other people, to help them to discover the best that they can be, the most themselves they can be. Adler writes in An Ethical Philosophy of Life that "every kind of sin is an attempt in some fashion to live at the expense of other life. The spiritual principle is: live in the life of others, in the energy expended to promote the essential life in others." Live in the life of others, live so as to help others to be their best selves, and in doing so you will become your best self.
I like the way writer and minister Christopher Buice puts it, too, talking about the relationships in his life and all of the time that they require. "Sometimes I ask myself, 'Whiter shall I go to flee from my relationships - whether they be with my family, friends, or coworkers? Whither shall I go to escape my ties to my neighbors - whether they be rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight; red, brown, yellow, black or white?' For we are all members of one family…the way we relate to each other may mean the difference between heaven and hell. I do not believe that salvation is an escape from our relationships. It is not about simply waiting for some heaven or bliss in the hereafter. I believe that salvation can be the experience of peace, goodwill, and reconciliation in the here and now in the context of our relationships."
Peace, goodwill, and reconciliation in the context of our relationships. Bringing out the very best in each person we meet, so that we might ourselves become better. That is a tall order, in traffic or out of it. I have a sinking feeling that righteous indignation doesn't fit into it at all. Righteous anger, at injustice, at evil, at cruelty - yes. But righteous indignation because someone cut in front of me on Colesville Road? I'm not sure that's quite the goal.
What, then, should I do? I mean, after all, people do cut in front of me on Colesville. What should we all do, when we're faced with those little moments, those small ethical decisions? The devil is in the details, we say, and I think it may be true. I'm sure I'd make the right decision if I got the chance to have a really big one, but with all these little ones…am I really supposed to be eliciting the best all the time?
As hard as it may be, yes. I think I ought, therefore, to be smiling at people in traffic, to be as polite as possible to the cashier at the grocery store…in fact to ask how his day is going, to engage with him as a fellow human being and not just a store employee, the person who scans my Cheerios and asks if I want to use a credit card. I think we are asked, if we are serious about this ethical business, to bring it to every aspect of our lives. To take the charge of building human relationships to heart.
And actually, often this is quite rewarding. Have you ever just smiled at someone else in traffic? When they smile back, it's just a lovely little moment of connection. And of course grocery trips are significantly more fulfilling if they mean you make a new friend. But all of these things, all of these little interactions, take energy and intentionality and care. When we are tired, or busy, or in a bad mood…it's then that we let them slip.
There's a passage that really gets at this, I think, from a book I have loved since I was a teenager. Maybe some of you know it. Daddy-Long-Legs was written in 1912 by Jean Webster; I have my great-aunt's copy. It's about a young girl who is raised in an orphanage and then sent to college on scholarship from a mysterious patron, about whom she knows only that he is very rich and (having seen his shadow once) very tall. So she calls him Daddy-Long-Legs, and writes him letters all through college…and that is the book, this collection of letters from a very earnest young girl just learning to become a woman.
Having been a rather earnest young girl myself, I read and re-read this book, and I still return to it sometimes, because the writing is so much fun and what is written is so often true. Here is what Judy, the little orphan, writes to her Daddy-Long-Legs after one day that went not quite as planned. "But this didn't end the day. There's worse to come. It rained so we couldn't play golf, but had to go to gymnasium instead. The girl next to me banged my elbow with an Indian club….We had tombstone for dessert (milk and gelatin flavored with vanilla). We were kept in chapel twenty minutes later than usual to listen to a speech about womanly women. And then - just as I was settling down with a sigh of well-earned relief to "The Portrait of a Lady," a girl named Ackerly…came to ask if Monday's lesson commenced at paragraph 69 or 70, and stayed ONE HOUR. She has just gone. Did you ever hear of such a discouraging series of events? It isn't the big troubles in life that require character. Anybody can rise to a crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh - I really think that requires spirit."
And it does require spirit, it requires care and thoughtfulness and dedication. Not just in the being-kind or being-polite sort of choices in traffic or the grocery store, although that's important, but in the more truly ethical decisions that come our way, too. Do we make sure to recycle that glass bottle, even when the restaurant only has trash cans? Do we actually bring it home with us, so we can recycle it there? When we hear a joke that's just a little distasteful, just a bit offensive, do we say anything? When our children's soccer matches feature a parent who's forgotten how to be a good sport, do we try to change the tone? These are ethical questions, I think, and their everydayness makes them no less salient. Little ethical decisions add up, you know, into a life.
The trick, though, is to remember that they are ethical questions, to remember that they matter, when we find ourselves swept up in the trivia of life. It's almost as though what we have to do is remember that we are ethical people, that we have chosen to live a life which values human relationship, values kindness, values right action. The way to do this, of course, the way to remember, is found on a car.
(This platform seems to be much more about traffic than I originally anticipated. For those of you who don't drive, I hope you're making the necessary translations in your mind…or you might simply decide that you have it all figured out because you live a greener life without producing any unpleasant gasoline fumes. And you may well be right - just remember not to treat us drivers with too much righteous indignation.)
At any rate, the way to remember to live ethically is found on a car. In particular, on the bumper of a car. It's there that we display our loyalties, our political leanings, our personal passions. Think Globally, Act Locally. If You Want Peace, Work for Justice. This Car Climbed Pike's Peak. Perhaps not that last one - but the other ones are really ethical statements, statements about the kind of people we are, or the kind of people we want to be.
I have, in the last year or so, been driving around in a car with no bumper stickers. It's a stealth car. And for a while, I liked that. It was kind of nice to drive around in my nondescript, beige sedan, no affiliations evident, no way for people to know who I was. I could glare in traffic all I wanted. There's nothing saying Toyota owners have to be nice, after all, is there? No law that Camry drivers are particularly called to bring out the best in the drivers around them.
But you know, I found a really great bumper sticker recently. It's the WES bumper sticker, and it has a wonderful quote from Thomas Paine ("The world is my country…to do good is my religion") and that Washington Ethical Society name across the bottom. And I started to think that driving around with no affiliations, no connections…that maybe it wasn't for me after all. So after this platform wraps up, I'm going to go put this on my nice beige stealth Camry. And I'll tell you something - with a bumper sticker that says Washington Ethical Society on my car, I'm going to feel a lot less comfortable glaring in traffic. I'm going to smile at the other drivers more. I might even let someone cut in front of me, just to be nice. In hopes that it might prompt them to do something a little bit right, too. It won't save the world. Or then again, it might.
So here's my challenge to you today: live life like you're wearing a bumper sticker. Go about your day as though you have a tattoo across your forehead, a tattoo that reads "Washington Ethical Society." It's an inspiring name. Let's live up to it.