"Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. ... It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile," said Robert Kennedy in a 1968 speech -- so the Denver Post reported in an article from the Washington Post feed today. The article, entitled "Federal government looks to gauge happiness" claims that there are movements afoot in Washington to measure our "gross national happiness." The team that is trying to come up with the metric is made up of psychologists and economists, including a Nobel laureate in economics.
On the one hand, I applaud the effort. Think of all of the other ways we measure our national "health": Gross National Product; Gross Domestic Product; unemployment statistics; housing starts; durable goods index; per capita income; the Dow Jones or NASDAQ. All based on economics. At least here is a different measure that doesn't necessarily bow to the "almighty dollar" (and where did that phrase come from?).
On the other hand, the fact that economists are (at least according to the article) the only partners with psychologists in developing the means of measurement seems to presuppose that happiness is intimately involved, or entangled, with money. And I'm not going to argue that having a greater income doesn't make some things a little easier -- but does it necessarily correlate to happiness?
Earlier this week I heard a snippet of a piece on the radio where the speaker claimed that economics has become the "mono-culture" (or "meta-narrative") of our world--or at least our American culture. That is, the measure by which we evaluate almost anything these days is an economic measure. He contrasted that with earlier centuries when religion was the measure, or even more recent years when science was the measure. Hmmm. How, then, would science measure happiness? Or even religion?
I remember hearing some years ago that Europeans, given the choice between receiving more vacation time or more money took the vacation time. Americans, given the same choice, chose money. We'd rather work for more cash, with less time to spend it. Hmmm. How are we defining, or measuring, our happiness? Or, even more significant, how are we defining, or measuring, our worth?
Are we "worth" the sum total of the minerals, chemicals and liquid that make up our body mass? Are we "worth" the amount of money we earn over one year, five years, ten years, a lifetime? Animal rights activist Tom Regan, in The Case for Animal Rights,* claims that all animals -- human and non-human -- have intrinsic, or inherent value, as opposed to our value as instruments or means to an (economic) end. Whether or not one wants to agree that human and non-human animals have equivalent value, I side with Regan that we have value simply because we ARE, not because we are homo economicus. This, I think, is more in keeping with our religious traditions that suggest that we have value because God (however you conceive of the divinity) has decreed it.
Happiness is good! And I hope we can find a way of measuring it, and taking it into account when we gauge the health of our society. If we do, we might make some changes in policy that benefit not only us, but others around us . . . and not primarily because it makes economic sense, but because it's the right thing to do.
*See a summary of his position here.
Saturday, March 31, 2012
Friday, March 23, 2012
There have been times when I've thought of myself as a bit of a curmudgeon (or at least a curmudgeon-in-training). These feelings wash over me most often when I'm at professional gatherings where the conversation seems to be going nowhere. My critical self jumps up and says, "Mutter, grumble, if someone else was running this, we'd be done by now! And, in the old days, before PowerPoint presentations ruled the day, we'd have a real conversation about this issue rather than fighting with technology! Harrumph!" And, of course, it's best when there's a fellow curmudgeon sitting next to me with whom I can "curmudge".
The other day, however, I had reason to check out the real definition of "curmudgeon" (more on that in a minute). Both Wiktionary and the on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary provide the above definition. And so I've had to re-think my self-diagnosis. I don't think I'm "ill-tempered"; I generally chafe at being characterized as "old" (even if I might be getting there). I may, however, occasionally have "stubborn ideas and ideas" -- that's where I've focused my "curmudgeonliness." And, so, if I'm not a curmudgeon, what's going on?
It seems that many folks confuse (or equate) "curmudgeon" and "cynic". I may be one of them. That is, my curmudgeonly tendencies may be more occasions of cynicism than a general "condition." "Cynicism", at its ancient Greek roots, was a noble philosophy that simply valued virtue as the greatest good. And so the Cynics reveled in exposing foolishness, either directly or indirectly. I kind of like that characterization!
Nowadays, however, a "cynic" is often less faithful to that ancient tradition, and is alternately defined as "a faultfinding captious critic; especially: one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self interest" They can be acerbic and unhelpful, maybe even downright nasty. (I hope I'm not often that kind of cynic, although I can occasionally recognize "faultfinding captious critic" in the mirror.)
We usually can recognize a cynical comment when we hear it. And one of my frequent reactions is to disregard, or discount, the comment as having little value other than releasing the speaker's emotion or disgust. But the other day I ran across a very provocative suggestion. In a book entitled Appreciative Leadership, in a chart with the heading "Eight Surprising Sources of Positive Potential", the third "source" was "Cynicism". The suggestion was "Behind every cynical statement there is a dream wanting to be realized. Ask about the dream; listen for it and reflect it."*
That turned my thinking on its head! Not only my thinking about cynical comments in general, but in my own self-characterization as either a "curmudgeon" or "cynic." What is the dream that lies beneath my criticism? What about the dreams that lie behind others' comments? Are we all frustrated by not seeing our hopes and ideals realized? And the only way we feel we can respond is by making "snarky" comments . . . and doing nothing.
Dreams and visions are part of every religious tradition. Sometimes they provide clarity for a current situation. Other times they provide direction, or an alternative to the current reality. All need to be heard; all need to be mined for the gems that they contain. What a gift it might be for me to spend some time in self-reflection when I find MY cynical, curmudgeonly, tendencies come to the fore. What an even larger gift it might be seek for the dreams behind others' comments?
*Whitney, Diana, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and Kae Rader. Appreciative Leadership: Focus on What Works to Drive Winning Performance and Build a Thriving Organization (McGraw Hill: 2010), 22.
Friday, March 16, 2012
As I observed above, I am pretty sure I have the resources within me to move forward. But I frequently fall victim to an internal tendency to hold myself back, and, instead, to encourage others to employ their gifts and talents. It is that "unselfish" thing! To look to a different context, I know that many athletes in team sports are encouraged to be unselfish, to share the ball, to recognize that there IS a team to help score, to win. On the other hand, individual players have been given, and have further developed, certain gifts and skills that have allowed them to play at highly-competitive levels. And if they keep those gifts and skills so much in check (by being "unselfish"), then they are not playing up to their full potential. And the team's overall effectiveness is compromised. In short, selfishness and unselfishness are two sides of the same coin.
I certainly have been in situations where I've had to be present in a different way, to try different things that don't necessarily come naturally. And I've had the sense of enjoying both the experience, as well as the outcome. But those have been somewhat the exception. The habitual ways of my being in the world claim the upper hand -- this is true for all of us, I think -- and I acquiesce. We are, as they say, creatures of habit. Yet some habits breed stagnation, while others promise excitement and life.
We are all summoned to consider and reconsider paths taken, as well as paths before us. We are all constantly offered opportunities to make changes. Sometimes they are life-changing. Other times they are small, yet significant enough to make a difference. New habits may be learned that lead to greater things! I think I've been convinced to play a little more to my strengths -- something I am always encouraging others to do.
So I suppose it's time to change course. Time to develop some new habits! Hard a-starboard! Let's see what's over there!
Friday, March 9, 2012
Neither Underhill nor "The Matrix" are saying anything new. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus frequently tells his followers, "You have heard it said . . . ., but I say to you". He called into question the dominant assumptions of the day, assumptions that controlled behavior and thought. Moses' and the Israelites' covenant with God ran counter to the dominant religious/theological expressions of the ancient near east, expressions that limited divinity to one place, and worship to one primary form. In Hinduism and other Indian religions, the concept of "maya" expresses the belief that we don't really experience the world as it is, but rather a projection that we have created, a projection that limits our compassionate interaction with others.
It's easier, of course, to be complicit with our neighbors' hallucinations. We don't have to think as carefully. We may not have to confront our own privilege. We may not have to take as much responsibility for others. We may not have to seek to change unjust systems -- our shared hallucinations may see them as perfectly just.
But often enough we are confronted by something that just doesn't seem right. There's a ripple in the hallucination that may suggest to us that we are seeing less-than-clearly. And if we give voice to our doubts, the charge of "insanity" may be leveled. That precise word may not be used; the same sentiment may come out as "heretic", "conservative", "flip-flopper", "liberal", "[fill-in-the-blank]-sympathizer", etc. Yet it may be just that "insanity" that is necessary.
The aphorism "Know thyself" has been attributed to numerous Greek philosophers. It is a sentiment with which I whole-heartedly agree. And part of the reason for its power is that if we really do "know ourselves", we may be more aware of how much we've bought into the shared hallucinations of our neighbors. Knowing that may empower us to break free of some of the more negative, unjust, structures we've created in order to fashion a better world.
Maybe what's called for is a little shared insanity!
* Mysticism, 1911.
Friday, March 2, 2012
Keep us, we pray you, thankful and hopeful
and useful until our lives shall end.
This sentence concludes a night prayer of thanksgiving in the New Zealand Prayer Book (p. 183). I've always been struck by it. "Thankfulness" and "hopefulness" are not strange words (in my mind) to be found a in a prayer. The former suggests a particular posture with regard to the divine, a posture that suggests that all we have is a gift-even if we think we've earned it. The very strength or power to earn something is a gift; breathe itself is a gift.. Thankfulness is appropriate, and prayers of gratitude are found in all the world's religions.
"Hopefulness", too, seems quite appropriate. It suggest that there is something ahead of us, or outside of us, to which we aspire or that gives us reason to persevere. It may be something as other-worldly as "pie in the sky, by and by", or it may be a fervent expectation that, given hard work, we may effect some positive change in the current situation, or something more concrete such as the end of a journey to the Promised Land.
No, it's the concept of "usefulness" that strikes me. Given the presence of the word in the context of a prayer, I have often pondered how we are to be "useful"? Is there only one interpretation, or multiple? Something the other day, however, sparked my memory of a story I heard long ago.
There was a woman, June, who had long been very active in her congregation. She had served on committees. She had arranged flowers. She had helped with potluck meals. She visited shut-ins. She was, in many senses "useful" to the congregation and, by extension, to God. Years passed (as they do), and June, physically, had to slow down. It eventually came to the point where SHE was the visited shut-in, the one to whom folks brought flowers. Much that had given her life a sense of purpose had become beyond her ability. And, like many folks, June began to get depressed. Her usefulness seemed to be a thing of the past.
One day, a leader of the congregation came to visit. June poured out her frustration and depression to her visitor: "I can no longer do all the things I've done for my community! All I can do is sit here and either stare at the television, or stare out the window. I feel so useless!" The wise guest nodded sympathetically, commenting that it must be very difficult to be confined in such a way. And then she said, "You know there is still one thing we always need, and that I think you can do." "What?" asked June. "Pray for us. Indeed, I can give you a list of the many individuals who need prayer. Or simply call, on a regular basis, the others who are in the same position as you." June blinked . . . and recognized a new possibility.
Perhaps this is the message of the prayer. Our culture is tied to production, to capital, to assets. And so we begin to think that we have a limited sense of utility; that our "use", too, is tied to product. Maybe it's time to re-think "use" and re-discover the many other tools --strengths, gifts, talents and abilities -- in our "swiss-army-knife" self.