Friday, December 28, 2012

Community, by my Uncle Gene

Community is one of those words we use all the time, without thinking much about what it means. While it means "those who share common interests," it  implies that some kind of "unity" is essential if there is to be a "community." We have a common interest in the welfare of children, and so we quickly became a national community in our grieving over the mass shooting in Connecticut. We "come together" as a community when such disasters occur, and we like to think our patriotism or love of country unites us all in the community of Americans. We acknowledge that our own "families" are our most basic community, and we build our other communities to some extent on that model. Our recent national election, however, profiled what deep differences there are, when we try to think of the community of all Americans. We have personal examples of how the various communities to which we belong are sometimes torn apart by the differences of opinion held by the members. Some of the most vocal disagreements we hear about, come from members of religious communities, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. To the ancient question, Why can't we all just live together in peace?, the philosophical response dates back to ancient times, and is brought up to date by lively interchanges between Harvard philosophers like Thomas Scanlon, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Michael Sandel.

But no philosopher has looked at the problems of community more perceptively than Alasdair MacIntyre. From his book After Virtue:  "We all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone's son or daughter, someone's cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations. These constitute the given of my life, my moral starting point. This is in part what gives my own life its moral particularity." MacIntyre claims we have lost the sense of loyalty to a tradition, the sensitivity to the needs that others may have, a willingness to go the extra mile simply for the benefit of someone who stands in need, and is a member of some community of which we are a part. 

What has torn us apart in recent years is our own penchant for extreme libertarianism: I am free to choose whatever I want to be or to do, quite apart from the needs of my community or my communities. "From the standpoint of individualism I am what I choose to be." While finding our own identities is no doubt important, we do owe something to each community to which we have belonged, beginning with our own family, but also to virtually every community that has had a hand in making us who we are. (Personal confession: I was a student in Canada for nine years, and I know I owe something to that community, something that can never be repaid, so it remains one of my many outstanding debts…) As MacIntyre comments: "For the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities from which I derive my identity. I am born with a past; and to try to cut myself off from that past…is to deform my present relationships." 

In a word, we owe something to the communities of which we are members. We owe something on a personal level, not just through the taxes we pay, but through some obligation of community building, of doing something to make every community of which we are a part, better for our having been there. Evolutionary biologists study the phenomenon of "altruism," the capacity to do something strictly for the benefit of someone else, and note that human beings are capable of remarkable acts of altruism, even to the point of sacrificing one's own life. While we may not be called to do that on an everyday basis, certainly there are daily examples when we can ride to the rescue of someone who needs our attention...

Just as we are born into the family that nourished us, and have built families where we may be the primary nurturers, so we are all members of larger communities, and we owe something to those with whom we share common interests, common boundaries, common visions of the future. In pursuing our own private interests, it is all too easy to overlook the obligations we have as community members, to do some good for others. It is the interests we have in common with all those with whom we associate, that truly make us who we are. While we may take pride in our individual achievements, we could not achieve anything apart from the communities that have nourished us. We have obligations of solidarity and loyalty that go far beyond whatever differences that may divide us. We only become truly human by participating in the communities that nourish and sustain us...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Take Time for Meditation, by my Uncle Gene

People often talk about how "stress-full" the holidays are. How can that be? Holidays are days off from the serious business of making a living and getting things done, supposedly giving us time to think about the things that really matter. We are all caught in the grind of trying to get more and more done in less and less time, and there are never enough days in any week to get done all the things on your "To Do" list for that week. 

The best time management technique I know is also the best stress buster. Set aside ten minutes every day where you will not be disturbed or easily distracted. Find a quiet place, and sit and meditate. Think first about your breathing: breathe deeply, and for a few minutes, count your breaths. You may want to spend a few minutes deliberately relaxing each part of your body, beginning with your toes, and progressing to the top of your head. You may want to focus on a plant that you can see, or a blank wall. You may find a mantra helpful, something as simple as: "There is nothing I have to do right now, there is no place I have to be right now." Whatever trials and tribulations your life has brought you, right now is a moment of tranquillity, when you are neither concerned about the past or the future. Devote ten minutes a day for a week to this simple practice, and you may find you want to make it a permanent part of your day, and you may find you want another ten minutes in the evening, or some other time when you can get away from it all, and focus simply on the joy of being alive.

As Gail Sheehy wrote many years ago, "there are predictable crises in adult life." There are also unpredictable crises, and concerns that may become more serious as you age. Every time you have a doctor's appointment, you may hear something you would prefer not to hear, maybe something you thought only happened to other people. We have our lives parceled out to us one day at a time, and each day is something of a little life, an entity complete to itself. It may be helpful to reflect that as long as we exist we are in motion towards something, but that we should also "delight" in what we have, what we have accomplished, and what we hope to do.

One of my meditating friends of fifty years passed away last week. His dying words were: "I am ready to go, but I am not eager to go." There have been giants of the spiritual life who have looked upon life and death with equanimity, and written words like these: "Let nothing disturb thee, nothing terrify thee: all things are passing, God never changes." While atheists might ask what God has to do with it, and theologians might debate the unchangingness of God, there is a point to having an anchor somewhere where nothing will disorient or overcome you, and the daily practice of meditation may help you reach that point. 

Even in these busy weeks, set aside ten minutes where you will not be disturbed. Take stock of your life: do you do some things that aren't really necessary? Are there things you know you should do that you have not taken time for? Do you set aside some time each day for yourself, for your own mental and emotional health? Meditation may do more than any other practice to put you on the path to taking control of your time and your life. Don't wait. Your life, and the meaningfulness of your life,  depends on it...