Opening Words by Lucille Clifton
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what I said to myself
when i was sixteen
and twentysix and thirtysix
even thirtysix but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
The sermon title comes from a book by Paul J. Zak, a neuroeconomist, who believes he has located the part of us that makes us moral – the moral molecule. In a sense, he claims to have located ‘the better angels of our nature,’ to use Lincoln’s famous phrase.
Neuroeconomics, as the name suggests, is an interdisciplinary field whose task it is to explain human decision making – our ability to deal with lots of options to choose from and process among the alternatives and choose the best – the optimal course of action.
The opening line from Robert Frost’s second most popular poem comes to mind: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood…”
Someone said, “There are two problems in life: not having enough choices and having too many choices.”
The flyleaf of Zak’s book, The Moral Molecule: the source of love and prosperity, says:
“Human beings can be so compassionate – and yet they can be shockingly cruel. What if there was a hidden master control for human behavior? Switch it on and people are loving and generous. Switch it off and they revert to violence and greed.”
“Pioneering neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak has discovered just such a master switch, a molecule in the human brain.”
The moral molecule, Zak says, is oxytocin.
When Norman Cousins was diagnosed with an incurable degenerative disease he took massive doses of vitamin C and prescribed a regimen that included laughter, which he believed caused healing chemicals to be secreted into his blood stream.
In the research he did during his remarkable recovery from that illness he found that scientists discovered more than 250 chemicals that are secreted from the activity of the brain.
Paul Zak has focused on one of those chemicals: oxytocin. His book reminded me of the discovery by Peter Higgs this past summer.
You may recall Higgs boson, the well-publicized discovery of what some called ‘the God particle. Scientists don’t like calling it ‘the God particle,’ for various reasons, not the least of which is the sensationalism – the implication of discovering a kind of anthropomorphic God.
At the risk of oversimplification, the Higgs particle is what holds things together – the reason all the atoms, molecules and particles don’t just whirl through space, unconnected.
Though I wouldn’t call it ‘the God particle,’ I do appreciate the metaphor. I have long maintained that religion, as the name implies, is that which causes us to feel connected.
Before birth we are connected, not separate. When we are born, we get unconnected – we become separated, and we soon come to realize that we are a separate individual, and that sense of separateness is the source of our anxiety, the basic source of fear.
When we bond with parents and caretakers, at first, and the anxiety is alleviated, but not completely — just enough for us to function in the world as separate individuals without being over-whelmed by existential anxiety.
Little by little, we make connections to other persons – an extended family, community, as we ‘walk through many lives,’ as the poet Stanley Kunitz put it. Our need for such connections is one of the reasons the religions were invented, and why Mark Zuckerberg became an instant billionaire with Facebook. It’s all about making connections.
As we live in the natural world, we come to realize that we are part of Nature, or Nature’s God, if you prefer, and these connections help us to feel at home in the world – we experience a sense of belonging, which is at the heart of religion in a generic sense.
We also have to reconnect with ourselves when we experience guilt and shame, and we feel alienated from our true self. Again religion enters the stage. Religion serves in the form of prayers of penitence and the resulting sense of forgiveness offered through confession, either in a religious setting or with the help of a psychiatrist, or a good friend who knows how to listen.
That brings us back to Paul Zak and neuroeconomics.
His moral molecule, oxytocin, is found in the blood stream – Zak’s research team has taken blood from tens of thousands of people as they make decisions “…with money in the lab, playing football out on the field, jumping from an airplane, attending a wedding, and many other situations in which human interactions take place.
Their research has shown that oxytocin feeds the ‘better angels of our nature,’ which is the metaphor I came up with after reading about their experiments. He and his research team conducted lots of experiments.
Zak opens his book with a report about an experiment he did at a colleague’s wedding. He took two samples of blood from the bride and groom and a cross-section of the couple’s family and friends who volunteered to be part of the experiment – before and after the exchange of vows.
Zak explains that oxytocin is known, primarily, as a female reproductive hormone. It is associated with conception, birthing, and the bonding between mother and infant.
He says, “Ocytocin is … responsible for the calm, focused attention mothers relish on their babies while breast-feeding. Then again,” he continues, “oxytocin is well represented—we hope—on wedding nights, because it helps create the warm glow both women and men feel during sex, or a massage, or even a hug.”
The experiments indicated that a rise in someone’s oxytocin increases generosity, caring and compassion, even with complete strangers.
Meditation and chanting increases the level of oxytocin in the blood stream, resulting in a sense of inner peace – it feels good.
If Higgs boson is ‘the God particle,’ oxytocin is the ‘human-izing particle,’ or the God particle for religious humanists!
Oxytocin: the bonding chemical – the religious chemical.
Paul Zak says that a feeling of trust is one of the key ingredients in the moral equation – the lack of trust prevents the flow of oxytocin, keeping the better angels of our nature from revealing themselves!
Charles Dickens provides a good example – Scrooge!
Scrooge’s oxytocin level is non-existent, but then he has a powerful encounter with himself and he wakes up on Christmas morning, in the sense that the Buddha was awake. (You’ll recall that the legend says that the Buddha was asked if he was a saint, a prophet, a god said, no, to each, and they asked, so what are you, and he said I am awake.) That describes Scrooge, before and after his encounter with the three spirits.
The opening line in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is ‘Marley was dead, to begin with…this must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come from the story I’m about to relate.’ His spirit was dead.
Scrooge, the story says, answered to both names, Scrooge or Marley. Dickens says, ‘it was all the same to him.’ Marley was Scrooge’s alter-ego…his shadow side.
Something in Scrooge was ‘dead as a doornail.’ Now we know: it was a lack of oxytocin!
He had a powerful dream, an encounter with the deeper parts of himself, which is what a dream is…an encounter with one’s unconscious mind.
Dreams seem quite real. In lucid dreaming, which is rare, you know you are dreaming, and it’s possible to direct the dream to where you want it to go, for a good outcome. Or, in a disturbing dream you can tell yourself it’s only a dream from which you will awake.
The story of Scrooge’s transformation is what our 19th century forbears called ‘salvation by character.’ It’s a kind of secular religion…
Miller Williams captured it in his little poem:
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears conceit, cynicism or bad manners, is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
We are the moral animal. We are also the immoral animal.
A passage from Whitman’s poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry universalizes it:
It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil;
We ask, “Why?” Why are we good…sometimes? And why are we so terribly destructive…sometimes?
We are separate from one another, but we are capable of making meaningful connections with one another; connections characterized by care and compassion.
We’re here in this sanctuary today to increase that capacity—it’s as simple and as profound as that. It’s what religion is all about, at its best.
May the New Year provide ample opportunity for our moral and spiritual growth.
We’ll close with a well-known poem by Longfellow.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!–
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
Art is long, and time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main.
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow