Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who am I and what is humanity?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, August 23, 2009

I am a newspaper junkie. I get the SWR, the Seattle Times, the Daily Herald, the weekly Christian Science Monitor, and I almost shed real tears when the Seattle PI went out of print, to say nothing of the Rocky Mountain News which was my favorite news source in Denver. So when the New York Times offered a weekend subscription for a low rate, I signed up and have enjoyed the NYT every weekend since spring.

This past Sunday, I opened the NYT and found a slick magazine insert entitled Style: shiny bright pages welcomed me as I opened it, but after flipping past page after page after page of ads, I realized that it seemed to be virtually all ads. Ads for makeup, for clothing, for skin care, for jewelry, for home furnishings----and models, rail thin with a range of expressions that seemed to be mostly scowling or fierce or sorrowful. Scarcely a smile to be found.

The table of contents did not appear until page 74; then there was another spate of ads, and content didn’t really start for another 10 pages, at which point it all seemed to be about how important it is to look stylish and associate with stylish people.

Now, I am as interested in style as many women my age; I like pretty things, I want to look reasonably up to date, and I want good quality stuff. I also don’t want to pay an arm and a leg and so I do a lot of shopping at Good Cheer and Community Thrift.

Here on the island there isn’t a lot of demand for high style, though, and I like the casual look just fine as well. You’re more likely to see me at Payless in jeans and a sweatshirt than you are in a dress or suit. But it occurred to me that, if I believed the ads in the Style magazine that came with my NYT, I would be a basket case.

The ads tell me I should spend an arm and a leg for a dress, that I should redecorate my home every couple of years or whenever the walls need painting, that I need to have the latest fashion in four inch heels, and that if my dress isn’t Armani, then it’s frumpy.

Celebrity life seemed also to be an important feature in Style, particularly the clothing, the diets, and the stylists used to achieve the celebrity look, not to mention the price tags!

It’s all kind of amusing from the perspective of Whidbey Island, but I’m aware that there are some people who really think that it’s more important to look good and to have the right friends than it is to be good and to be the right kind of friend.

Somehow, there are people out there who didn’t learn what I think most of us learned very early in life, that who we are and what we do with our lives matters a whole lot. Or maybe we just learned it a different way than they did; we learned that our inner selves are more important to work on than our outer selves.

When you were a kid, did you ever hear the phrase, “just be yourself, honey, and you’ll be okay”? It might have been on the first day of 7th grade or before a job interview or a date but it was a scary prescription, offered at a time of our lives when we weren’t too sure who our real selves were and whether we had much to offer.

In addition to the newspaper junkie persona, I am also a list maker. And there came a time in my teen years when I needed to figure out who I was so that I COULD be myself. I’d checked out the ads in Seventeen magazine and didn’t see myself there; I was pretty sure I’d never have a 24 inch waistline and there wasn’t any point in fretting about it!

So I sat down one day and thought about what I knew about myself and made a list: I was tall, big-boned (that’s what we called it in those days), female, smart, musical, witty (or so I thought), religious, mostly Scandinavian, a preacher’s kid, and the oldest child. At my age, which was about 16, this is about what I could come up with.

I didn’t know enough about life or about humanity or about my own potential, to go farther. It was a bit discouraging because I didn’t seem to have enough “self” to be, but my mother said to just keep my eyes open and I’d learn more about myself from my friends and teachers and family.

Like most teenage girls, I wasn’t very happy about her advice because there was a particular boy I wanted to notice me and I just didn’t have the right kind of “self” to make a favorable impression on him. And it didn’t help that his favorite thing to call me was Catgut, a take-off on my last name of Ketcham, having evolved there from such monikers as Ketchup Bottle, Ketchy Belchum, you get the picture.

We’ve all had those identity crises as kids and we’ve mostly managed to work our way through them. Along the way, we have probably picked up conflicting ideas about ourselves and it can be hard to sort out truth from not-so-kind fiction.
In my case, there were the things others told me about myself: my parents were proud of my wanting to be baptized at age 6, so I must be religious. People laughed at my cute remarks, so I must be funny. People sneered at my not-so-cute remarks, so I must be weird. I was bigger than most of my friends, so I must be fat. I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school, so I must be ugly.

But I did have doubts about what others told me. Sometimes their beliefs about who I really was didn’t tally with my experience. Sometimes I was so confused that I gave up and gave in to their perceptions. Okay, they think I’m clumsy, I’ll quit trying to do cartwheels. My self-image was often shaped by others’ opinions about me.

As I gained in years and wisdom, I began to sort out the meanings of my life and experience, to discern my own truth and quit letting others do it for me. Making my own meaning began to be very important to me.

Meaning-making never stops for human beings, and this is part of human nature. As children, we learn standards of behavior, right and wrong, cool and uncool, from adults and other kids; we compare those standards to what we want, what we have learned about how the world works, and we adopt or adapt or discard those standards.

Our understandings of our selfhood are always growing and changing. We employ many tools in this process. We’ve used astrology, tarot, runestones and other somewhat metaphysical tools, including all those quizzes on Facebook.

We’ve investigated various tests--the Meyers Briggs to find our personality traits, the Strengths Deployment Inventory to discover our leadership skills, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, to see if we were pyromaniacs. And from all these we’ve gained a certain knowledge to add to the perspective we were gaining on ourselves.

In addition, we began to see that there were things we were NOT. Some of them seemed to be connected to what others told us about ourselves (I still cringe at the stories I hear from people who were told they weren’t musical or artistic--I think that human beings are intrinsically musical and artistic, whether they can carry a tune or draw a straight line).

Yet we knew we were different from others in some ways. Perhaps we knew we were not heterosexual. Perhaps we were not white. Perhaps we were differently abled. Perhaps we were atheists. Perhaps we experienced crushing depression or heard voices. Perhaps we disagreed strongly with public policies. Our thoughts seemed to go different directions from others’. We puzzled over these differences and sometimes kept them secret.

As young adults, on the strength of what we thought we knew, we took jobs or continued our education. We entered the work world or became fulltime parents, in the belief that this was what life would always be like for us. And for many of us, this became problematic.

Sometimes our soul-searching was precipitated by world events. For my generation, the Vietnam War was a flash point. The assassination of John F. Kennedy shattered the dreams of a postwar Camelot; subsequent administrations illustrated the questionable ethics of our elected leaders.

We idealistic young folks, many of us sheltered by our World War II generation parents who had seen the horrors of the Holocaust and a world war, had to come to terms with human evil.

For the first time in our lives, we had to confront human evil on a worldwide and national basis, but we also had to acknowledge that we ourselves, as human beings, were susceptible to the same weaknesses that all humankind shares: greed, rage, disease, oppression of others and more.

We struggled to understand what it meant to be human. Were we born good or evil? Or both? Why did we make the choices we made? Why was it often so hard to choose good? What did heredity and environment bring to bear on our human nature?

Were we responsible for the consequences of our own behavior or should we blame it on our parents, our teachers, our friends? Could we hide from the awful realizations of the despair that could visit human beings? We often tried, using and abusing drugs, alcohol, tobacco, relationships, money, to protect ourselves from the reality of our growing unhappiness.

This journey through self-understanding and coming to terms with the pluses and minuses of being born human, rather than some other less responsible species, is common to all of us, no matter what our generation.

Our young people today are confronting their own versions of the struggle between good and evil. Technology has increased the options for communication and has opened up the field of communication to huge abuses, in addition to its huge benefits to us all.

As Sandy and I shared our own observations and questions about human nature, we tossed around a number of ideas about what makes humans human----what are the characteristics of humankind, the bedrock on which cultural, civic, religious, and personal individuality rests?

Sandy had done a lot of thinking about human nature in preparation for our service today and she offered some important insights: for example, humans use our ability with language to reason with one another, sort things out intellectually, not just instinctively, though Michael Dowd’s words the other night emphasized how instinctual our behavior is.

In addition, humans are able to express and understand symbols. Also, at an early age, we discover that we are separate individuals and that that means a different, more complicated life than that of other animals.

We humans are able to step out of the present moment and consider both our history, our collective memory, and where our actions may take us in future time.
We can take a larger view of life, even though we may seize the day. In fact, “carpe diem”, seize the day, is more meaningful to us because we can take a larger view.

We humans can explain our actions---to ourselves and others—because we have consciousness, of ourselves and of our motivations. And our conscience, that always developing sense of right and wrong, gives us guidance as we make decisions about our actions. Our conscience is what makes us blush with shame at times. It’s been said that humans are the only species which blushes, or needs to.

We humans have the reasoning power to make judgments, accurately or not, life-enhancing or not, relationship-building or not. We also have moved, at least in Western life, far enough from the survival mode of hunting and gathering to have leisure time and to wonder how to use that time. We have many ways of distracting ourselves from dealing with the realities of human life, its opportunities, its hazards, and its responsibilities.

We seem to have a hunger to be entertained, to rest temporarily from the daily round and to be free for a time from human realities.

These thoughts are only a partial consideration of the facets of human nature. The question of ontology, or being, has been a favorite topic for philosophers both ancient and modern, for centuries.

But I think it’s enough to get us to the point of asking the theological question: where is the sacred in my life, your life, in human life?

Let’s think about that for a moment. Sacredness is generally considered to be defined as worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; a quality inspiring awe or reverence. What do you think? In one word can you name something that is sacred to you about human nature? About human life? (One or two word answers, please.)

I’m guessing that many of us agree with some of each other’s answers and many of us disagree with others. And it occurs to me that perhaps we are the factor that determines what is sacred about human nature, about human life.

If we decide that our ability to Love is sacred, then it will be sacred to us. If we decide that our Conscience is a gift from the Universe, from God, then we will treat it as sacred and we will pay attention to it.

We don’t all have to agree on what is sacred, but it does matter that we stay open to it, as beings who are both rational and spiritual, and on life’s quest of self-discovery.

This question about our human nature is one which has puzzled and excited human beings since our species appeared on the earth. It will probably never be fully answered, as we are always learning more about ourselves and our humanity.

We have asked more questions about this idea than we have answered today. And that is a reality about human nature, that we are eternally curious.

The Hebrew scriptures state, in Psalm 8: 4-6, the same question: “ What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals, that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”

Virtually all religions have some answer to this question. In Unitarian Universalism, we invite you to find your own answer. What is the value of human life? What is our responsibility to the Universe, to God, to one another and ourselves?

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering what we know about ourselves and about our human nature. May we strive to see the sacred in our everyday lives and in the daily miracles of life that surround us and may we be open to the many possibilities that human life presents. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


LinguistFriend said...

I think that in "Hymns of the Spirit", Psalm 8 has a version (in Latin which I hope I recall correctly) "What is man, that you magnify him, and why do you orient your heart towards him?" (at home I'll check later). Sometimes you take classic topics, dust them off, and remind us in a memorable way that they are still important. It is not the first time I've seen you do it, but it is well done.

ms. kitty said...

Thank you, dear LF. I hope you're doing well.

kimc said...

Have you read Doug Muder's "Right and Left Together" in which he discusses Consumer Hedonism? That worship of style over substance is part of what Consumer Hedonism, the religion, is about.
it here:

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Kim, I'll check it out.

Elz said...

France, the homeland of quality fashion, has had enough. New laws will require labels on airbrushing. There are also laws in New York about overly thin models, as exhortations to self-destructive behavior. Someone can actually be called in to do a BMI reading!

I know that Times section you started with, and they need to be pressured to do truth in labelling.