Who Am I?

document.write(" serif">Existential Crisis?

Who is God? We have come to accept that She is Black, but we are shocked to discover that She is also Transgender. Why does that come to mind? Because last week's news, more than ever, reminds us that we are blaming others for what we do to ourselves, and even for what we are.

In the narthex of the church I attend, there used to be a poster of Jesus. The caption was, He came to take away our sins, not our minds. I loved that poster. For me it was a pointer to the struggle we all face: “Who am I? And how do I fit in?” It said to me, faith is a wrestling match, with myself and with God.

That poster is gone now. Others have interpreted it differently. Perhaps they felt it contradicted something they believe.

That's the world we live in. More than ever, our world throws daily challenges our way. Our worldview, our faith, and even our view of ourselves – these are buffeted and pushed around. We can no longer get through life with a constancy of self and faith.

It is no wonder that we react with fear, and retreat into groups we hope are small enough to shelter us. Family, ethnicity, gender – can we find safety there? Some years back President Obama said we had to leave behind the “lines of tribe”. How prescient he was.

Terror in the News

The massacre last week at the Pulse nightclub adds another dimension to the phenomenon that is staring us in the face. Could it be that, at bottom, it is about neither guns nor “Islamic Terrorism”? Could it be that there is more to it? How about an epidemic of existential crises?

Who is the typical ISIS recruit?

He is a he, for a start. A young man. What do young men want? Sex. They can't wait. But if you are a Muslim, sex is forbidden outside the family. So they have to wait. But young men want families, too – and work. Work is key, because to answer the questions “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in?”, we must have both love and work. We must belong. We must be a part of something larger than ourselves.

ISIS fits the bill. Join, and there are sex slaves – even wives, if you want. You are instantly part of a huge movement, known around the world. You are part of the struggle against the decadent western civilization that has denied you everything: sex, family, work, love, and purpose. With one choice you fix everything.

But what if you are gay?

In the New York Times of June 17, 2016, Guy Branum wrote a piece entitled Pride after Orlando. This is a quote from that piece:

When word surfaced that the Orlando shooter had frequented gay bars and dating apps, some speculated that he might have been doing research to plan his attack. Gay people understood the other very real possibility, that the attacker might be a man with homosexual desires whom society had filled with so much secret shame that he would do anything to prove his distance from the gay world.

I read the piece and tried to put myself in the position of the potential ISIS recruit. I tried to put myself in the position of a human being who fits that profile and who, somewhere deep within, recognizes that he desires men. He is simply out of luck. His family and his religion say, no way. His isolation increases. There is no solution.

Why do we go out?

It is true that, more often these days, we stay home and put on a special meal for someone we love. Or we meditate. Or write a long email to a friend we haven't seen in a while.

But sometimes we go out. A meal in a restaurant. A church service. Team sports. Why?

Maybe the wait staff are rude. Maybe the sermon rankles. Maybe that egomaniacal jerk took too many shifts as center.

But . . . even so we are exposed to the delicious range of humanity. Is Chaucer's pardoner a model for our behaviour? Do we even like him? What about Shakespeare's characters, who are to this day the best compendium of human nature?

No, we don't love them all. At least, we don't love them in the facile sense of the word. But in a larger sense we do love them, and we know that we need them in some fundamental way. Otherwise, why would these authors' works still live?

I believe we go out, attend church, play sports and read Shakespeare because we are human and we need to know humanity in its full range. Only then do we have a chance to answer the existential questions: “Who am I?”, and “How do I fit in?”.

Modern Times

We live in a time when it is impossible to escape the influence of forces which shield us from humanity. These forces take many forms, and it is not my purpose here to blame any of them. Instead, my purpose is to incite curiosity: can we cultivate a habit of critical questioning? Can we decide for ourselves whom to trust and what to believe? Can we find the strength to trust ourselves?

For example, how important are likes on Facebook? Should these be something we actively seek? And how important a blow is an unfriending?

What about the news? Do we watch PBS, MSNBC, or Fox?

What newspapers and magazines and blogs do we read? Do we think about what is on offer at any of these “content providers”, and why?

In our time most of these “content providers” pitch to a profile which is frighteningly close to who we are. What do we get out of that? Cheap self-congratulation. Perhaps a sense of entitlement. But this filtered “content” also leads us to a self-induced isolation from a broad swath of humanity, and to our utter failure to challenge ourselves intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually. Should it surprise us then that we are experiencing an epidemic of existential crises?

What Now?

It seems to me that the bottom line is this: we cannot appreciate ourselves until we can appreciate others.

Have you taken shelter on a veranda and watched a thunderstorm roll through? Have you stood on an open hillside and felt an earthquake move the ground under your feet? Have you acknowledged their power and beauty, even as they spared your life?

Just so will you come face to face with your own power and beauty. The shock will be all the greater because you recognize your qualities for what they are: an essential fraction of that roiling atmosphere, those sliding and buckling tectonic plates.

The Future of Our Civilization

In the New York Times of June 10, 2016, Adam Frank wrote a piece entitled Yes, There Have Been Aliens. One of the questions therein is: How much longer will our civilization last? In this fascinating article the author and his colleagues remove this question from the Drake Equation of the 1960's. That changes the larger question from Are there aliens out there? to Have there ever been aliens out there?Together with advances in astrophysics in the last decade, this changing of the larger question enabled them to put numbers into the terms of the equation and answer Yes, there have been aliens.

But for us the first and smaller question is still vitally important. It is our civilization, after all. Will our children's children's children even be born? What can we do to make it more likely that they will be?

I believe that we – humanity – can and will survive. But capitalism and democracy, although they have served us well, are not sufficient for the task at hand. As a civilization, we must use more of our human capital. The difficulty of this task of survival is too great to allow the marginalization of even one of us. In religious terms, we must expand our view of who God is. God must be all of us.

And none of us can take the easy way out. We cannot find ourselves and respect ourselves and contribute our gifts if we wall off others and retreat into an exclusive community.

Each one of us is a unique individual. But that is our gift, not our purpose. To put our gifts to use for humanity we must wrestle and struggle. We must answer the questions: Who am I? and How do I fit in?

If we fail in this, we are accountable only to ourselves and God. We can blame no one.

Labour is not Cheap

document.write(" serif">Today, as we honour those who toil, we might do well to look over our shoulders to see what has been happening. Only by remembering what was can we truly see what we have become. For example, see if you can find photos of yourself and your loved ones that go back over a generation. If you can, and you put them in date order, you will be swept up by the stop-frame movement through time. It will take your breath away.

I was a young person in the 1960's. It was a time of intense hope and idealism. We spoke of not joining the man in his quest for money and status. Alas, it was not to be. We grew up and joined the man. It was the beginning of what Cornel West calls the Ice Age.

Another name for the man is the scientific management movement. Following Henry Ford, it broke up manufacturing into small chunks that minimized the need for skill. You could, the thinking went, make high-quality goods without the trades, without apprenticeship, without good work. And if you didn't need good work, you didn't have to pay for it. All the skill (and the pay) resided in management.

Barry Schwartz, in Rethinking Work, a well-timed piece in the New York Times of August 28, pointed out that it was Adam Smith himself who provided the seed for the growth of the man. In the foundational document of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, he opined that people were naturally lazy and would work only for pay. “It is in the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can.”

Professor Schwartz (psychology at Swarthmore) also tells us that Adam Smith's idea that the worker is lazy has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would add that if work is cheap, you will get cheap work.

But there are more – and more disturbing – revelations in Rethinking Work. They have to do with a worker's engagement and enjoyment, which in turn flow from his feeling that his work is meaningful, that it makes a difference. According to Gallup polls, says Schwartz, Nine out of ten workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don't really want to do in places they don't particularly want to be.

I know this is harsh and heretical, but here is my thought for the day:

Yes, Adam Smith laid the foundation for capitalism. While not perfect, it has been the best option for centuries. But Adam Smith was and is wrong about the human being. We are not lazy. We can tolerate being dirt poor. What we cannot tolerate is a life without meaning, a life remote from connection with the larger society. So what do the poor, the uneducated, and the unemployed do?

In West Side Story, they joined a gang. In The Wire, they sold drugs on the corner. In 2015, they join ISIS and commit to jihad. Is that so far from what Cornel West calls the fire?

Fire means a certain kind of burning in the soul that one can no longer tolerate when one is pushed against a wall. So, you straighten your back up, you take your stand, you speak your truth, you bear your witness and, most important, you are willing to live and die.

Can a mistake of Adam Smith have borne so much strange fruit? Income inequality, gangs, drugs, jihad. What a terrible waste of our precious and talented youth!