Posted by: dacalu | 17 October 2013


Many thanks to Chris Hampson for his remarks at Memorial Church this morning and to John Wakeley for a great discussion over breakfast.  Both of them contributed to these reflections.

You’ve been lied to.  All of us have.

We have bought into a very popular idea in our world that tells us we are independent and in control of ourselves.  In psychology and psychiatry we are told that only we control our emotions, only we control our actions.  In religion (pretty much every religion) we are told that only we can make the existential choice for the good or true or worthy.  In economics we are told that pursuing our own interests is the best way to regulate the economy.

In every aspect of our lives, we are taught that we are in charge, and this serves many good ends.  It encourages activity and morality.  I want people to know that (and how) they influence their emotions, their happiness and salvation.  I want them to use their financial and social resources to the best end.

At the same time, I think there is a downside to this empowerment, to the myth that you are in charge of you.  Sometimes you are not.  The more we emphasize the ability of a man to shape his own destiny, the more we must neglect his power over the destinies of others.  When you hurt someone, it has an effect on their body chemistry in a way that influences their emotions.  When you love someone, it changes the way they view themselves in relationship to you and to others (including God).  When you purchase an item, it changes the dynamics of the market and can make things more (or less) expensive for others.

We are connected.

I find that this month’s congressional impasse has had a profound impact on me and I’ve been trying to figure out why (and how).  I think it has something to do with an apparent lack of connection between the participants, an unwillingness to admit that actions have consequences, both immediate and long term.  When the republicans supported George W. Bush in his acquisition of executive privilege, did they realize it would come back to haunt them in Barack Obama’s use of executive privilege?  When the Democrats pushed the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) through with procedural slight of hand (Slaughter Rule), did they realize it would embolden the Republicans to do the same (H.R. 368)?

I’m not saying the offenses were equivalent.  I am saying that the environment and the behavior form a feedback loop.  When you tell (or better show) someone that winning is more important than getting along, they tend to respond in kind.  Game theorists have shown this to be true, not necessarily for individuals, but for aggregates.  Spite (punishing at cost to self) begets spite and selfishness begets selfishness.

It is not enough to say that our actions impact others.  We must recognize that every action impacts everyone else – though perhaps only to a minor extent.  We are interlinked and interdependent, no matter how much we might wish to be otherwise.

There’s no avoiding the truth that torture harms the morality of the tortured.  We strive to minimize the effects and I do think there are miraculous examples of overcoming our environment, but they are always cases of overcoming – never ignoring.  It is not the case that we are the sole masters of our destiny or even our identity.  What we do matters in the most fundamental way to the shaping of others.  What we do comes back to us in their behavior.

Do I have a right to blame others for my misdeeds?  No, but neither to I have a right to absolve myself of theirs.

I fear that we as a nation are in for much worse times ahead if we cannot learn to behave in ways that lead not only to immediate success, but to long term, stable community.  We must expend the effort, both mental and physical, to build productive communities.  That means fostering open, honest communication, taking time to listen and understand, making personal sacrifices for the good of the whole and for the good of others, and above all caring about the desires of our neighbors.


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