Archive for December 2009
For those of us who grew up in nominally Christian countries, the Christmas season is an annual time that evokes memories of every previous year of our lives. Christmas is like a string on which the beads of all our years are strung together into a more or less coherent whole. Having lived through the better part of sixty-five years and gone through just about enough transitions, I find my thoughts and emotions around Christmas are pretty complex. Let me try to tease some of them apart.
- Silent night, secular night. I grew up in a pretty secular family. We celebrated Christmas by putting up decorations, sending out cards, exchanging gifts and drinking eggnog and eating turkey. As a child I was always moved by the story of Joseph and Mary trying to find a place to spend the night, and I loved the idea of a baby being born in a pile of straw in a barn, surrounded by gently lowing cows and bleating sheep. It seemed a perfect start to life. And of course I also knew how the story ended with the tragic execution by Romans of the man who had once been an innocent babe in the manger. The story moves me no less now than it did when I was a child. In fact, it probably moves me much more now, because I ams much more aware than I was then of the kinds of suffering people can go trhough between the time of their birth and the time of their death. The birth of Jesus symbolizes for me the birth of every innocent chlld who will someday face challenges ad trials that shatter innocence and leave wounds that never quite heal. So Christmas has been, and continues to be, a time of joy mingled with profound sadness. It is a time to reflect on what it means to be human.
- All is calm, all is light. As a young man living and worshiping with Quakers, I develped a deeper appreciation of Jesus the rebel who listened to his own inner voice and followed his own light. The Quaker conviction that we are all in possession of the same inward light of the holy spirit that inspired Jesus made me look to Jesus as a model of uncompromising and fearless integrity, a man who did what was to be done and was never intimidated by the reactions of those in positions of power and authority. As a young man who saw the fullest realization of the teachings and actions of Jesus in the writings of Karl Marx, and especially in the advocacy for the poor, the weak, the oppressed and the downtrodden, I saw Jesus as an angry and persistent champion of those who were being held down by social, political and economic forces, and Christmas was a time for reflecting on all that. Reflecting on all that had the effect of turning me more and more against the commercialism and consumerism of modern Christmas. Nothing was a better symbol of the enemy of all the Marxist-Quaker Jesus had stood for than the modern image of Santa Claus, which had been fashioned by the advertizing companies that promoted Coca-Cola, a company at the vanguard of the shameless commercialization of the Christmas spirit.
- Christ the bodhisatva is born. My discovery of Buddhism, which in an odd way was a by-product of my explorations of Quakerism and Marxism, was a discovery of the teachings and practices that became the beacon of my adult life and led me to see the limitations of angry rebellion against the powerful classes. Buddhism gradually turned my peson picture of Jesus into a bodhisattva who selflessly healed the sick and injured, who rescued women from angry mobs bent of stoning them to death for adultery, who enabled the blind to see (which I always took as a figurative expression for enabling the foolish to become wise). For others Christ might be a saviour, but for the Quakerly Buddhist that I had become, Christ was still the model of a life well lived, the Socratic examined life, the Buddhist life of wisdom and compassion.
Everything I have ever been, I still am. although in transformed ways. At Christmas time all those images of Jesus from Christmases past come fully to life. I walk around with tears in my eyes. Tears of joy, tears of rage, tears of hope, tears of despair. Secular, humanist, Marxist, Quaker, Buddhist tears. Human tears. Complicated tears. Wonderful tears.
On Friday, 4 December 2009, on The News Hour Jim Lehrer read out the guidelines of what he calls MacNeill/Lehrer journalism.
Do nothing I cannot defend. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story. Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.
It occurs to me that several of those guidelines could serve a general guidelines for educators and for everyone else who communicates for a living. Come to think of it, they would serve as good guidelines for those who communicate recreationally. Here are those guidelines stated in a more general form:
- Say nothing you cannot defend. Use the same care in speaking of anyone that you would use in speaking about yourself.
It is a rare person who exercises as much care in describing another person’s conduct, or speculating about another person’s motivations, as is exercised in talking about oneself. Most people are fairly sensitive about how their actions are described and how it is reported what they have said, and few people enjoy having others speculate about what it is that motivates them to act and speak as they do. This guideline is nothing but an application of the Golden Rule. It is an invitation to remember that others are as sensitive as oneself
- Assume there are many sides to every situation, and that every situation can be seen from a variety of legitimate perspectives.
Because everything we know comes through the senses, and because the senses are located in the phyiscal body, and because the physical body occupies a finite and particular region of space-time, it is impossible for us to see things as others see them. We can only experience things from our own particular vantage points, so it is easy to forget that others are experiencing things from their particular vantage points. Just as conditioned as our physical senses, of course, are our interpretations of events as they run through the complex filters of memories, educations, unreseolved emotional complexes of which one is not fully conscious and so forth. This conditioning is a good enough reason to doubt the privileged status of one’s own judgements, and to consider giving credence to the judgements whose opportunities have been different from one’s own. It sometimes takes an effort of the will to try to imagine who one might see things if one had had a different family, different religious indoctrinations, and had come from a different country or had learned a different language as one’s mother tongue. Making the effort is invariably worthwhile.
- Assume that whoever you talk to is as smart, as caring and as good as you are. Assume the same about whoever you talk about.
Everyone has limitations, and no two people have exactly the same limitations in their intelligence, thier compassion and their manifestation of virtue. Everyone has something to gain through interactions with other people, and no one can be discarded as having nothing to offer. Remembering this is a good way to cultivate respect for those to whom one speaks and about whom one talks.
- Respect the privacy of all people.
It is not always easy to recall in a culture as given to attention-seeking as contemporary society has become that most people still have matters they would rather not become public knowledge, and that there is nothing alarming about this fact. For whatever reason a person may have for wishing to keep part of his or her life out of public view, it is a wish that is worth respecting.
- Be mindful of when you are stating an opinion and not merely reporting facts.
There is considerably easier to say than it is to do. It is not always clear in one’s own mind where the boundary between opinion and fact are. Some have even doubted there is such a thing as fact as all; rather, such people would say, there are those opinions that we acknowledge are opinions and those opinions we mistakenly think are facts. That notwithstanding, it is not a bad practice to be mindful of all the ways in which one has become opiniated and may be inclined to pass personal convictions off as objective truths.
- Be careful not to pass on hearsay or opinions disguised of reports of whan unnamed “other” people say.
One of the easiest ways to introduce an idea into the public arena without taking personal responsibility for it is to report it as an idea one has heard others say. When pushed to name the sources of these ideas, people who resort to this tactic often appeal to the right to privacy of the &lquo;others” whose opinions are supposedly being reported. Such reports rarely have a legitimate role to play in serious discussions. It is best to let these others speak for themselves.
Speech guidelines, in my experience, are the most difficult to follow, because speech is so subtle. Unless one has a stutter or a speech impediment, it is so easy to speak that words often escape from the lips before they have been properly inspected for suitability. And yet, when one thinks of the power words have to shape people’s beliefs, to influence their emotional states and to urge them into action, it is difficult to think of anything more important in human life than mindfulness in using language.