Ethics 101: Putting First Things First
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 10, 2002
This is the Sunday closest to Lincoln’s Birthday, so I suppose it only appropriate that we remember “Honest Abe” at least a little as we consider the matter of ethics this morning. I remember a story about Abraham Lincoln that I learned way, way back, perhaps in the third or fourth grade. It was part of a social studies lesson; maybe it was even part of a short film or filmstrip or something we watched about Lincoln’s life.
The story is told that once when Lincoln was a young man (no more than a boy, really), he was working in a small dry goods store, and he realized that he had overcharged a customer.
The customer had already left the store, so at the close of business that day, young Lincoln trudged two miles—five miles—who knows?—through the snow, I seem to remember—or maybe it was in the dark of night, or in a rain storm or something—but circumstances like that-- to return the money he owed the customer.
What was the amount in question? A single penny. One cent.
(Hence the nickname: “Honest Abe”.)
All that way to return a penny? Not many of us could match that, I bet.
There’s a more recent story about workplace ethics, also involving a retail establishment:
A customer thinks that he has paid with a ten-dollar bill. The storekeeper, shortly after the customer has left, realizes that it was a hundred. She has mistakenly overcharged the customer by almost $90.
So, she, too, faces a real moral dilemma: Should she tell her business partner about the error, and split the $90 with him—or should she keep it all for herself?
Times have changed.
The sociologist Wayne Dossick has written:
“In the early 1950s, teachers were asked to list the top five problems in their classrooms. They responded: talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in the hall; cutting in line. Four decades later, this question was asked of teachers once again; the replies were… drugs and alcohol, guns and knives, pregnancy, suicide, and rape.”
“Is it any wonder then,” Dossick then asks, “that more than three-quarters of all Americans believe that this country is in serious moral and spiritual decline?”
The world has grown harsher, tougher, seemingly more dangerous. But has it grown any more ethical? I don’t think so.
Ethical issues saturate our culture. Pick up almost any issue of the Boston Globe. (Or, if you must, the Herald) and what were the “big issues” from the past week or so (aside from the “War on Terrorism”, which presents its own set of intense moral questions)? What have been the top news items of the past couple of weeks?
Probably the Enron scandal, and the priest-pedophile predicament within the Catholic Church. Intensely ethical and moral issues both, to be sure. Both issues where private morals impact upon public ethics; where individuals “missing the mark” encroach upon the well-being of large public institutions. Both examples where private “sins” cross the border into becoming public crimes.
Of course, none of us is a completely autonomous individual, completely isolated from the world and society around us. So, the ethical choices we make affect others, too: those closest to us, but others, too, in ever-widening circles; they affect the future, just as the ethical choices others have made affect the lives we are leading today.
There are countless ties that bind us to one another, and to all life. Life is all about interdependence—about being in relationship with the world around us. “You can’t pick a flower without troubling a star,” one poet has put it. Everything is interdependent. Scientists tell us that the fluttering of butterfly wings in Minnesota can affect climate conditions in California. We know from science that every square mile of soil on the earth contains traces of soil from every other square mile. In the exchange of breath—water vapor—with one another, we breathe in the air of centuries, the breath of our ancient ancestors quite literally flows within us. The breath of the centuries—of Moses and Jesus, of Buddha and Gandhi, of Hitler and Stalin—animates our bodies.
When our Native American forbears spoke beautiful words like these--
“The wind that gave your grandfathers his first breath received his last sigh… The shining waters that moves in the streams and rivers is not simply water, but the blood of your grandfather’s grandfather… The earth upon which we walk is the bones of our ancestors…”--
they were not merely engaging in metaphorical flights of fancy—they meant it as literal truth, which they knew in their beings, without all of our tech- no-logic- al “advancement”.
Our ancient ancestors knew nothing of the World Wide Web, but they everything about the real universe-wide web, the interdependent web or all existence. They had never seen the Earth from space as we have, but they knew everything about the essence of our living, breathing planet, our ancient Mother Earth.
As Peter Richardson has written:
“Worship is far older than ethics. Chimpanzees have a kind of worship as they sing in the evening dusk. Humans have always held invocations of the dawn, celebrations of the midday sun, sung hymns to the evening, and bowed down before the moon. We always have celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, the succession of the seasons. Mother earth and father son have received our gratitude. The sea, sacred mountains, the tree of life, snakes, birds, and totem animals, the hunted, plants which hold herbal powers and culinary nurture have all received our propitiation and thanksgiving. The passage of life have been marked by human community, celebrations of the passages of birth, youth, marriage, elderhood, and death…”
Our ancient ancestors (and simpler, Earth-based peoples among us yet) knew something very, very important that we “more advanced”, “modern” ones seem to have forgotten: They knew, in their beings, of the primal world—the first world—the beginning—from which we were all created; the earth, wind, fire, air, which somehow brought forth Life—which somehow brought forth us. They lived within this sacred world, and knew no separation from it. They were like fish in the water, in awe of the mystery, and so, all knew how to behave. There was no need for ethics is such simpler, knowing times.
But then, tens of thousands of years of human “advancement”, “progress”, history came and went, and we human ones moved farther and farther away from our primal origins, our primal knowing. At some point, our ancient ancestors began to come into contact with people like us, and yet… not like us… People among whom we had not dwelled forever… people who didn’t speak the same language… who didn’t know the ancient stories… who used different names in praying to the gods… who didn’t act the same as our tribe…
When gods collide, often human tribes collide us well. So, too, was born aggression and warfare and the need to dominate and control others. And so, too, arose the need to control the Earth, and our place in it.
So, too, was born ethics: Rules and regulations requiring how people should act upon the Earth, how they should relate to one another, to the “others” among us…
But the further we have roamed from our primal vision—our original sense of oneness with all creation—the easier it has become to get lost in the deep, dense forest of human artifice and abstraction, in spite of all our formalized “ethics” and our libraries packed full of rule books. Perhaps the way home again, toward a truly universal ethic for a new millennium is back toward that primal vision—back toward that sense of oneness—but with eyes that have seen now that the Earth, and that have seen, sadly, too, the mayhem and despair that is wrought when we forget that primal element of our existence, and go one dividing the world into tribes—and races—and classes—and us and them…
The Dalai Lama, an ancient-modern man of great wisdom and no little humor, has written:
“I am convinced that human nature is basically gentle and not aggressive; and everyone of us has a responsibility to act as if all our thoughts, words, deeds matter—for really, they do. Our lives have both purpose and meaning.”
But the Dalai Lama, while not condemning all the advancements of modern living (remember: even he has been known to use a laptop on occasion) nevertheless laments the way in which our “modernity”, our craving for “individualism” and “freedom”, has led us to seek as our goal having the least possible dependence on anyone else that we can. This is spiritual suicide, he says: it goes against the very interdependencethat is written in our souls, our very beings.
According to the Dalai Lama, complete isolation from one another seems to have become the goal of modern living. Everyone “needs” his or her own computer. Everyone “needs” his or her own car. Everyone “nneds” his or her own house. Everyone “needs” to have every single thing that they think they need. There’s not even the most rudimentary sharing within families anymore, he laments.
It reminds me of the song that Janice Joplin used to sing: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” A life without the need to share is a life without ties to others. That means never being strangled by others. But it also means going through life alone—alone in all the cosmos. What could be more of a hell than that?
The Dalai Lama also says that this radical independence we seem to be seeking encourages us to suppose that because we do not need others, then others are not important to our happiness, and so their happiness is not important to us, either. Why worry, then, about discerning the best ways to get along well with others? Why bother being ethical, with being good? Why not just retreat within our technological cocoons, latch down the hatches, lock ourselves within our hermetically sealed cars, or houses, go our own ways, do our own things, and have as little to do with the world as possible?
Why is this the path to spiritual (and ethical) suicide, and not to enlightenment? Simply because living that way means living a lie. It means turning our back on our humanity. It means birthing societies that are spiritually bankrupt—rich in things but poor in soul. Our isolation from one another breeds our most heinous crimes. Squelching our natural urge for life and for connectedness will give rise to the most unnatural and evil perversions of the human spirit. Isolating ourselves from one another means hearing the words of our Native American ancestors echoing back upon us:
What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men?… What will happen when we say good-bye to the swift pony and the hunt?
It will be the end of living and the beginning of survival.
And maybe, if our warring madness wins out, it will mean even the end of survival itself.
The solution, obviously, is not in going backward. It doesn’t lie in cleansing ourselves of all the “contamination” of modern technology, and escaping to a simpler, less complicated way of being. (Which is not to say that there isn’t much we can all do to simplify the mad modern lives we lead.)
Ancient words and ancient rituals can feed our spirits, and strengthen us and inspire us for the work that is still ours to do as modern men and women. But we can’t choose the age in which we were born. We can only choose how we will live within this age, how we will deal with both its blessings and its challenges. And indeed, modern living is both blessing and curse. Human reason and human knowledge and human inventiveness can be blessings as well as curses. It is how we use these things that really matters.
The solution is not in dismantling modern society, brick by brick, wall by wall, skyscraper by skyscraper, and returning to the simple time of tribalism and nomadic life. For we know all too well now the terrors of tribalism in a world that also knows technology. Without something deeper as our basis for living, tribalism means only terror and mayhem and despair.
We don’t need tribalism. No, now more than ever, our old world needs universalism. We need a radical sense of our oneness, our interdependence; we need a sense that we come from one Source, one God, one great Love—who has given us this one Earth to share together. As universalists, the underlying basis of our ethic is this: We will serve above all else the cause of that which furthers this fundamental Oneness. We love our country. We love our tribe. We love our people. But, ultimately, we pledge allegiance to the Earth, to the whole creation, to that deeper Love in which we live and move and have our being.
“The right [road] is the one that leads you to compassion,” the Dalai Lama teaches. The particular religion we espouse really is not what matters. But the spirituality we practice—the ethics we live—must lead toward love and compassion for all living creatures. We must somehow find ourselves on the road which leads to “amity toward all and enmity toward none”.
That’s a tall order, and it’s a long road. The ethical life is usually a toll road, too—it costs us something, whether we like it or not.
Living within an interconnected, world-wide ethic is a big challenge. But this is a big world. And it’s all our world now. It’s no longer a question of my tribe or my clan or my little hilltop or my little piece of Earth in the valley. If we are honest, then we will have to admit something that our ancient forebears knew: that we all emerge out of creation together, and we are all of us woven together into a single, indivisible garment of destiny. What we do to one another we do to ourselves. What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves. Only an ethic which cherishes, first of all, the Earth and all its creatures will be big enough for the new age that is before us.