Autumn is my favorite season (except for spring) and during the month of September, just passed, I was reminded why it’s my favorite—Goldilocks got it right: not too hot, not too cold–just right.
Every morning in September I went to Compo beach and walked for two miles–some days I went back in the evening to make the two-mile walk again, both for physical and for spiritual exercise.
It has been glorious. The swans are gone but there are more egrets, now. They stand stealthily still in shallow water, waiting for breakfast to swim their way. The snow-white egret’s form and grace pronounce Nature’s beauty better than any human-made object.
Nature isn’t all beauty, of course. Yesterday I watched a sea gull carry an unbroken clam high enough to drop onto the pavement to crack it, and when she, another gull came along and chased the first one away, stealing that clam and stretching his neck arrogantly. He squawked away as if he was the king gull of Compo beach.
I had a mind to chase the bully away and give the clam back to the victim who had to go without, for now. But I didn’t interfere. I’m there as an observer of Nature. My task is to take notice, to learn, and to understand you better, and to understand myself better.
As I walk I pay attention to my own wandering mind–sometimes wish I had a notebook, because I get such great ideas there for sermons. Sometimes I compose a Dear Friends letter, or pen a poem that gets stolen like that clam taken by the squawking sea gull. I had a firm grasp on it, for a time, then it’s gone, just as suddenly as it came.
September mornings on Compo have been glorious and October holds promise of more Goldilocks weather. I learn from the patient egrets who stand and wait so serenely for breakfast. I, too, am nourished as I walk and take notice.
Sermon text: Matthew 13: 10 – 17
“And his disciples came and said to him: Why do you speak to the people in parables? He answered and said to them: Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given. For to him who has more shall be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not, and hearing they do not hear, neither do they understand. With them is filled the prophecy of Isaiah, who said:
‘You shall indeed hear but never understand,
and you shall indeed see but never perceive.’
For the heart of this people has grown dull, and their ears have grown heavy with hearing, and their eyes they have shut: lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them. But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. For I say to you, many prophets and just men have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them, and to hear the things that you hear and have not heard them.
Hear you therefore the parable of the sower…(he explains the meaning of that particular parable.)”
This is a strange statement—attributed to Jesus: but I chose it because it suggests that the only ones who understand the parables—the symbolic stories—are people who share a certain frame of reference—the ‘in group.’ As an informed Jew he quotes ancient Hebrew Scripture: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.”
What do we see and hear but don’t understand? This sermon speaks to one of the reasons why we’re feeling so polarized as a nation today. The point: it’s as if we are speaking two different languages, and we really don’t understand one another.
A parable is a simple story that compares one thing to another; like a simile in poetry, where the word like or as is used to make a comparison between two unrelated things.
The parable of the sower compares the work of the farmer planting seeds to the work of the rabbi, planting ideas. Some grow, some don’t; some touch the heart, others appeal only to the intellect and are soon lost to memory; some take hold, some wither quickly
The word parable has the same root as the word palaver: talk intended to charm or beguile.
The Music Man was filled with palaver; the first date is sometimes characterized by palaver; pulpit preachers are prone to palaver (this one being no exception); politicians use plenty of palaver: talk intended to charm or beguile.
No wonder we have such a longing for tough truth-telling; we long for it because it is in such short supply.
Did you hear the debate on Thursday? I know who won: Jim Lehrer won! He got to frame the questions, and that, after all is what it’s all about: it’s about asking good questions. The quest!
The Hidden Persuaders:
During the early 1960’s, when I was teaching at Wellesley High School, I introduced my students to Vance Packard’s work, especially his 1957 best-selling book The Hidden Persuaders. Vance Packard warned us about a creeping kind of consumerism where people were being convinced to buy more stuff, especially stuff they didn’t really need, by appealing to the unconscious level.
We all know that Madison Avenue has been using this kind of subliminal technique for decades. The technique works—we have managed to create a nation of insatiable appetites and the need to have more, and bigger, with no notion of ever being satisfied, while all the while living in denial of abundance.
Vance Packard referred to this as “the disturbing Orwellian configurations of the world toward which the persuaders seem to be nudging us.” He explained in detail how ad campaigns—and election ads and ‘the art of political spin’ are in the same category—use all the persuasive arts; how they exploit all our vulnerabilities, hidden fears and secret wishes.
Language and the use of non-verbal communication have always been used in two ways: first, to communicate, to get out a clear message; and, second, to ‘avoid communication.’ Language has always been used to lie, to trick, too deceive—and always for some ulterior motive.
Orwell simply put words to the ways communication is turned inside out, so that war is peace: all you have to do is say that it is peace—deny the dead…the young dead soldiers.
A Foolish Consistency:
After the debate I kept hoping someone would quote the famous line from Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do…Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.”
Emerson identifies three groups that hold themselves together with certain belief systems: political parties, religions, and philosophical ideas or systems: ideologies.
Framing the issues:
John Hooper recently gave me a copy of George Lakoff’s book, ‘don’t think of an elephant.’ It’s about the current public discourse, and it’s a summary of his book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.
In his book, ‘don’t think of an elephant,’ he says, “Don’t think of an elephant. Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never met a student who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image, or other kinds of knowledge…When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.”
He explains: “Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the nation on TV…and said, ‘I am not a crook.’ And everybody thought about his as a crook.”
Then he gives a current example, using the phrase tax relief to illustrate his point. He writes:
“Think of the framing for the word relief. For there to be relief there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief.”
“When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction and the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy.
He offers another example from the State of the Union address where the President said, “We do not need a permission slip to defend America.”
Lakoff writes: “What is going on with a permission slip? He could have just said, ‘We won’t ask permission.’ But talking about a permission slip is different. Think about when you last needed a permission slip. Think about who has to ask for a permission slip. Think about who is being asked. Think about the relationship between them.”
Lakoff goes on to suggest that one of the reasons for our apparent lack of ability to understand one another, and to feel so polarized, to feel so alienated from those with whom we disagree politically and religiously, is that there are two very different models we use as a frame of reference.
One is what he calls the strict father family and the other is the nurturant parent family model. He says:
“The strict father model begins with a set of assumptions:
“The world is a dangerous place, and always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good.
“What is needed in this kind of world is a strong, strict father who can:
–Protect the family in the dangerous world,
-support the family in the difficult world, and
-teach his children right from wrong.
“What is required of the child is obedience, because the strict father is a moral authority who knows right from wrong.”
Lakoff goes on to explain that children need to be taught to obey and the only way to teach them is through punishment, ‘painful punishment,’ including hitting them when they do wrong. He quotes the hero of the Christian, James Dobson, who recently wrote, “There is no excuse for spanking babies younger than fifteen or eighteen months of age.”
Lakoff explains that physical discipline helps the child to develop internal discipline to keep themselves from doing wrong, and this internal discipline is what they need to succeed in a difficult competitive world. Those who have this internal discipline will become prosperous and self-reliant.
“Thus,” he says, “the strict father model links morality with prosperity. The same discipline you need to be moral is what allows you to prosper.”
“When the good children are mature, they either have learned discipline and can prosper, or have failed to learn it. From this point on the strict father is not to meddle in their lives. This translates politically into no government meddling.”
“Consider what all this means for social programs. It is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because then they will not develop discipline and will become both dependent and immoral.”
“What you have to do is reward the good people—the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and hence their capacity for morality—with a tax cut, and make it big enough so that there is not enough money left for social programs. By this logic, the deficit is a good thing. As Grover Norquist says, it ‘starves the beast.’”
In his State of the Union address last January the President said he thinks they can cut the deficit in half by cutting out ‘wasteful spending,’ that is, spending for ‘bad’ social programs.
He points out that conservatives are not against all government, of course. They are for lots of government when it comes to the military budget; they are for lots of money for homeland defense and Departments of Treasury andCommerce—these aspects of big government they like very much. Government subsidies for industry and corporations, which reward goodpeople, are great, Lakoff says. “No problem there.”
Then he says, referring back to his strict father model, “But they are against nurturance and care. They are against social programs that take care of people.” The Orwellian phrase that twists this inside out is ‘compassionate conservatism.’ War is peace.
Note: They are not bad or crazy people—they genuinely and sincerely believe that they hold the moral high ground by opposing social programs, and it does no good to call them bad names.
What’s important, however, is to understand where they are coming from. Just as people in relationship have to try to understand where the other person is ‘coming from,’ rather than simply trying to get them to think as you do.
This is the place where I feel personally challenged: something in me doesn’t want to understand them; something in me simply wants to dismiss them as wrong! “If only they would see it my way!”
Lakoff is saying that the two different ways we have of seeing the world creates a sense of great distance between us; a disconnect.
The strict father model applies to those on the political and religious right; in the extreme, it applies to religious fundamentalists in the world of Islam, Judaism and Christianity—each of which makes reference to a ‘father God,’ a ‘strict father God,’ who has carved the rules in stone, and, if you don’t obey, you’ll be severely punished for eternity.
Before explaining Lakoff’s world view as ‘progressives’ see it, let me simply say that I see these two opposing sides the way I see the Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang: the circle is divided into two sections with a curved line; the Yin and the Yang; but within each of those two sides there is a small circle to show that within the Yin there is Yang; within the male there is female; within the female there is male.
We may vote a certain ‘party line,’ or we may belong to a particular religious group, but when we are open-minded, we realize that as humans we share the same basic structure: within the strict father model there is the nurturing parent model; within the nurturing parent model there is a strict father model.
Lakoff presents the nurturing parent model this way:
First, it is gender neutral: both partners are responsible for raising the children. It takes a village…
The basic assumption is that children are born good and can be made better; the world can be a better place, and our shared task is to work on making it better than it has been, thus far. The emphasis is on the here and now, rather than some imagined hereafter.
The parents’ job—the work of the village—is to raise children who will be nurturers of others, who will help to ‘heal the world.’
Nurturance, in this sense, means two things: empathy and responsibility. The parent must respond, ably, to the needs of the child: to know when and how to feed the child, to change the diaper, to hold the child when he or she is feeling afraid…when he or she has a nightmare, or hears the thunder.
The nurturing parent must learn to take care of his or her own needs, since raising a child is a huge task; you have to be strong; you have to work hard at the task; you have to be very competent; you have to know a lot, and keep learning.
You have to avoid burning yourself out. To take care of a child, you have to take care of yourself.
There are deep, important ‘family values’ at stake. The nurturing parent will empathize with the child and provide necessary protection for the child.
Lakoff points out the political connection:
“What do you protect your child from? Crime and drugs, certainly. You also protect your child from cars without seat belts, from smoking, from poisonous additives in food. So progressive politics focuses on environmental protection, worker protection, consumer protection, and protection from disease. These are the things that progressives want the government to protect their citizens from. But there are also terrorist attacks, which liberals and progressiveness have not been very good at talking about in terms of protection.”
“Second, if you emphathize with your child, you want your child to be fulfilled in life, to be a happy person. And if you are an unhappy, unfulfilled person yourself, you are not going to want other people to be happier than you are. The Dalai Lama teaches us that. Therefore it is your moral responsibility to be a happy, fulfilled person. Your moral responsibility. Further, it is your moral responsibility to teach your child to be a happy, fulfilled person who wants others to be happy and fulfilled. That is part of what nurturing family life is about. It is a common precondition for caring about others.”
Lakoff then lists the family values which progressives emphasize: freedom; opportunity; fairness; open, two-way communication; community-building and service to the community, and cooperation within the community…which requires trust, and to have trust you have to have honesty.
These are the basic, essential family values which progressives share. (Remember, like the Yin and Yang, that well-known Chinese symbol of a black and white circle, there’s some of the strict-parent model in the progressives, and the strict-parent model contains a piece of the progressive model.)
We have to emphasize our nurturant family values; we have to be able to articulate them; we have to understand them, while at the same time acknowledging that these family values are shared by those whose model, whose ‘language,’ if you will, comes out of the strict father model; we all have ‘family values.’
We also have to understand and to acknowledge that there are variations on the theme within the nurturant family values model, just as there are variations on the Unitarian Universalist theme, and the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. themes.
Again, Lakoff lists some of the categories he sees, which include:
–those who emphasize environmentalism;
–those he calls socioeconomic progressives who think that everything is a matter of money and class and that all solutions are economic in nature;
–those who identify with the oppressed who he calls Identity politics progressives;
–those for whom civil liberties is at the heart of the matter; and those who he calls spiritual progressives, whose connection with all the people of the world are at the heart of it all and whose spiritual practice has to do with service to other people. (…and service is its law.) “Spiritual progressives span the full range from Catholics and Protestants to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Goddess worshippers, and pagan members of Wicca.”
–anti-authoritarians who see all sorts of illegitimate forms of authority ‘out there,’ and say we have to fight them, and get upset with those who don’t see the danger they see.
The point of all these variations on the nurturing family values theme is that we are not in complete agreement with one another; there are ‘layers’ of disagreement.
This is where Hosea Ballou’s comment comes in—do you remember it? He said, “Where there is love, no disagreement can do us harm; where there is not love, no agreement can do us any good.”
It’s not so much agreement that we’re after, or that we ‘need.’ What we need is a sense that we can disagree with one another without alienating one another. That’s true in families, and it’s true in friendships; it’s true in work situations; it’s true in the political climate of the day as we limp toward election day.
I say ‘limp’ because as a nation we’ve been wounded; we were ‘wounded’ on September 11, 2001; we were wounded on election day four years ago in Florida, especially when we learned about what took place behind the scenes in Florida.
We’ve been wounded by the tragedy that is unfolding in Iraq, and no matter how you feel about the justification for this war, or lack of it, there have been more than 1,000 young American men and women killed and thousands badly wounded. We’re limping.
The major point, however, is that the two different ways of seeing the world make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for us to communicate effectively with one another.
We’re speaking different languages, in a metaphorical sense, because we have such different ways of viewing the world: through the eyes of the strict father model, or the nurturing parent model.
Those whose world view has a dominant ‘strict father’ model see those with a dominant ‘nurturing parent’ model as irresponsible,letting the world go to hell in a hand basket.
Those whose world view has a dominant ‘nurturing parent’ see those with a ‘strict father’ model as domineering, arrogant, undemocratic and dangerous.
We speak different languages; we’re not communicating effectively.
Add to that the problem of intentional distortion in this politic season and we’re in deep trouble as a nation. The world is in deep trouble at the present time.
The so-called truth will not set us free; we don’t change our minds simply by having someone tell us where we’re wrong, simply by filling in the facts, like Detective Joe Friday: “Just the facts, Mam.”
Our brains are hard-wired. The wires connect information with feelings, and right now we’re all feeling at least a little bit anxious; the threat level goes between orange and red; we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop; and we’re too much into blaming the other guy.
We need to understand where the other guy is coming from; which means we have to understand ourselves—where we’re coming from; and we need to find ways to overcome the language barrier whose foundation is in such different ways of seeing the world.
Robert Frost caught some of this in his wonderful little poem, Revelation:
We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated hear
Till someone really find us out.
‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.
But so with all, from babes that play
At hid-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.