Category Archives: Ethics

A World for Our Grandchildren

People who know me would likely describe me as a “no drama” person.  Relatively cool-headed, thoughtful, inclined to turn the dial down on conflict and confrontation and find “some other way.”  In a tug-of-war, I sometimes just drop my end of the rope and wait to see what happens.

But Roger Cohen got to me yesterday. I did manage to sleep on it overnight, but I couldn’t get away from it.  He wrote that his fifth grandchild had just been born on February 1, and he didn’t know what kind of world these children would find when they come of age.

Our twelfth grandchild was born on February 2, and I have tears in my eyes when I think of the world that may be awaiting these dozen precious beings.

It could be a beautiful world – one where the natural environment is moving in a healthful direction, blossoming with possibility. One where nations have abjured war, and where their representatives share their desires and interests with an intent to find a win-win instead of zero-sum outcomes. One where people of diverse backgrounds gather in creative endeavors to brighten all our lives, where those who have more resources find helpful ways to share with and encourage those who have less.

But our world now is agitated by emotions that are unhelpful –  fear, anxiety, and anger, energized by a desire to blame others.  When a country like the United States, a beacon of light for so many,  starts to nurture that hateful, constricted morphic field of emotion, the effects are far more damaging than they might be from other places. When they come from the elected leader of this country, and are supported by many in a major party – not just an extremist group – the effect is like standing behind a jet plane as it takes off.

When I let it in, I feel as though I can barely stand on my feet.  That’s how I felt after reading Cohen’s op-ed.

It’s true: this administration is slowly “getting people to shrug.” After so much hot air, so much emotional coercion, I’ve developed an avoidance reaction, turning my shoulder to the onslaught, a “shrug” that combines disdain, self-protection, and helplessness.   It isn’t a shrug of not-caring, or it-doesn’t-matter.  I know it matters and I care – but how can I stand up to it?  I don’t see a way.

It does not escape me that there is resonance with some aspects of the #MeToo movement.  As Uma Thurman said, one can become more compliant or less compliant. Partly it depends on how much pain one can stand, whether one can persuade oneself to redefine cruelty as misguided attachment, and whether to decide to fight or to spend one’s limited energy on other things that seem much more beneficial and creative.

Here too:   How much pain are we experiencing?  Some people more than others – some not at all right now.  How much do we empathize? How bad does it have to get?

Are we persuading ourselves that cruelty, contempt, and grandiosity are merely misguided patriotism, pride, and insecurity?

If we are we choosing to invest time in our own private, creative and beneficial endeavors in the belief that our energy is best spent that way, we had better investigate our beliefs.

If we hesitate because we “just don’t have the energy for it,” chalk that up to false belief. When we truly commit to the good, the true, the beautiful, the transcendent, the cosmos opens for us an unbelievable reservoir of energy.

The Greatest Generation had to face some choice like that in their Darkest Hour.  I don’t know if we’re there, but we – I – should face reality instead of turning away with a shrug.

I’m looking at my grandchildren’s pictures. I wonder if my dad, when he flew thirty missions over Germany, was thinking of his adored nieces and nephews, and his own yet-unborn children – one of which was me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe Something Doesn’t Love a Wall

“To show we’re great, we’ll build a wall!”
He shouted, “Long and big and tall!”

Does God define those out and in
By race or creed or next of kin?
If that’s the purpose of your wall
May all your bills in Congress stall!

But a worse lesson you must learn
Before you take one more bad turn:
Your wall cannot change to a boat
When every house now has a moat.
Walls will not be thought of more
When men must now rebuild a shore.

Your surety you thought would keep
But even you must watch and weep
As walls and towers built to abide
Are strewn across the countryside.

And now will the jeweled isles cry
While you continue to deny
The changes come upon our land?
We can all see the stronger Hand.

We know pride goes before a fall.
Do you think God cares for your wall?

On Not Being Alone

If it’s true that we each have to do our own “work on ourselves” – our psychological and spiritual work – how then do we deal with the flip side of that coin, that we have become a highly individualistic and even narcissistic society?

With that question, I feel a fear of loneliness and of eternal separation from others – each “just workin’ on ourselves.”  Then one of my internal voices waxes nostalgic over the days when family and neighborhood were closer – people who cared about you were close at hand.  If not in the same neighborhood, then a short drive away – an hour or two at most.  My parents moved back to their home state because a four-hour drive to their parents, from the next state over, was just too much!

But that is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a prod to imagination but also colors reality in false shades.

As I look at my own life and my children’s, I realize that today we form different networks of support. We probably have more separate networks where one set of friends doesn’t know another set. But still the close circle, the people you would call when you’re having a major personal problem, is a small one. Possibly more friends and less family – but it was always true that there was a special aunt or cousin you could turn to, or on the other hand someone you would never turn to even in your own family.

So with spiritual work: It’s not necessarily the case that we are alone in our individual search for meaning and purpose. In fact, I would suggest we can’t be alone for long.  The reality today is that, as with our family and neighbors, we aren’t required or expected to have the same group (e.g. the same church or even religion throughout our lives), the same teacher or mentor, the same personal companions on the journey, .  And that’s good.  When a group expectation is present, it’s difficult to avoid the traps of the collective ego, the voices that warn you are going “out of bounds,” that you’ve “crossed a line,” that you’ll make others feel uncomfortable.

But our fear of being alone often drives us to seek security in some kind of lasting commitment.  So what do I mean when I reassure you that we can’t be alone for long?

We have a fundamental need to be seen, acknowledged, by someone else.  We cease to exist unless we can look into the face of another and feel “seen.”  My son told me yesterday that his four-month-old gets fussy if, when awake, he is left too long separate from the goings-on of the household. “He needs to be seen,” he said.  Yes.  From infant development, to achievement in school, to the discoveries we make, all throughout life, of who we really are, a blessing comes with each moment of being seen.

Depending on our temperament and how strongly and healthfully we are seen when we are young, we may feel more or less independent.  Many of us need to be in the presence of a personal teacher; the Face gazing on us must be a flesh-and-blood person.  Yet some can feel the presence of a teacher through words, through a voice or even through books. Some do not need an authority or expert so much as a friend, someone who sees us and gives us honest and loving responses.  Some have teachers who are not living persons – they are guided by ancestors, angels, souls, or supernal guides conceived in different ways.  Some can be in the presence of angels through art – sculpture, music, light and color.  We often think we are seeing; but when the experience is deep, we are also being seen.

I like the teaching that each of us has an Angel Out Ahead.*   This Angel is a force in the Imaginal world which we also inhabit (remember: imaginal is not imaginary; it is a real existence in a different form).  When my children lived at home, I could sometimes perceive their angels.  I learned that when one of them was having a difficult time, about to explode in anger or tears at the dinner table, I would focus on the faint luminous presence that was just in front of them, just above their forehead.  Time stopped for a moment, long enough for the child to collect him/herself and move forward with more confidence.

So we are never alone. That light is always shining, just ahead, mysteriously seeing, absorbing who we are at that moment and illuminating the path forward.

That angel may be experienced in many forms.  As a guardian angel that warns us, like the voice that told my husband, “Move!” just before a car hit him, so he was moving with instead of resisting the energy; it probably saved his life. Or as inner angels of kindness that remind us to slow down, relax, soften our prickles.

Is it one angel, or many?  I suspect the latter – angelic dimensions of those around us in visible form, and invisible helpers, teachers and guides by the multitude.  And we can now see camps of angels among whom we move on a daily basis, communities we chose or landed in, with whom we now share an interdependence.  With good fortune, we may be in communities of people who agree to a rule of law, to basic respect for the bodily integrity and property of others, people who greet you pleasantly and serve you with a reasonable amount of grace at the market or the coffee shop, and whom you greet and serve in your turn.  These fundamental forms of civilized behavior are also graces, from the Angels Out Ahead in harmonic vibration together.

When we encounter the dark, we often feel alone because darkness is the thickening veil of separation from others. But when we begin to see the light at the edges, when we see through the clouds, then we also learn to “see through” the opaqueness of the world and of other people.  We can even see their angels.   I learned that when we see a person coming down the street, we should imagine him or her accompanied by angels, chanting “Baruch Ha-Ba!  Blessed is the one coming forth, made in the image of God!”

Bruchim ha-Baim!  Blessed are the Angels in this world and in all their forms, who ensure that we will not be alone.

 

 

 

 

 

* The phrase “Angel Out Ahead” comes from the work of Tom Cheetham on Henry Corbin, who was adapting the Zoroastrian idea of the celestial “twin.” See Cheetham, All the World an Icon, chapter 4, section 4.  The Talmud has a similar idea in the idea of guardian angels (which the Jewish Encyclopedia relates to the Persian idea also). The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 10:6) extends this to the world in the saying from Rabbi Simon, “There isn’t one blade of grass that doesn’t have an angel in heaven who strikes it and says ‘Grow!”  (Most internet sources incorrectly attribute this to the Talmud and change it to the angel “bending over and whispering” to the grass. The actual quote is a little more striking.) The word used for heavenly angel is mazal rakia, which would usually mean an astronomical constellation or star, which would have its unique quality.  The word “strike,” while it at first sounds harsh, could be read as like striking a tuning fork, so the grass would vibrate in sympathy with its heavenly counterpart.

Crisis and the Global Brain

Tiffany Shlain, founder of Let It Ripple Film Studios, has compared our newly interconnected society to the developing brain of a baby.  The internet is a global ‘brain’ composed of electronic, virtual networks in its early stages.

I like this metaphor.  I’m not sure it’s exact, because the newborn’s brain develops in the context of  warm, nurturing emotional connections with others, whereas the internet started at the other end, building its ‘neocortex’ first (scientists were the first to use it).  But I think the metaphor can help us understand our current situation.

So let’s take it as a strong analogy. I’ll add to it by suggesting that a year of internet development is equivalent to about a month in infant development.  The history then would look like this:

The internet was in fetal stage in the 1980s, beginning with the Simple Mail Protocol in 1982. Its birth as a global phenomenon was 9 “months” later in August 1991, when the World Wide Web was introduced to the public. A new intelligence came into the world.

At age 2 months (1993) the first instant message appeared – interestingly, husband to wife, saying “Don’t be scared.”  At 4 months (1995), the baby began creating exchanges within its environment that were broader: obtaining goods and communications (Amazon, EBay, Hotmail). At 7 months (1998), it began to explore and search its environment for things it actively wanted (Google).  At 8 months (1999), Emojis arrived to offer a variety of simple emotional communication. While Web TV had been around for a while, interactive (two-way) personal video communication wasn’t till the baby was a year old (Skype 2003) and posting homemade videos two months later (YouTube 2005). Short bits of designed communication (Twitter 2006) were at age 15 months – on that level of the brain, a precocious kid.

In the years since, the internet has transformed our individual brains through the technology designed to connect our personal brains to it more and more intuitively, the iconic inventions being the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

An individual baby’s brain from 16 to 24 months is changing at an enormous rate, mastering more ways of interacting with its environment physically, emotionally, and linguistically, as well as developing the beginnings of self-identity.  Babies recognize themselves in mirrors sometime after 15 months of age. That’s a pretty good marker for when our global brain began to recognize, about 10 years ago, that we are becoming a different species – seeing ourselves in a much larger mirror.

I wonder if it is an accident that just then, the USA broke through an old barrier and elected a black president who demonstrated himself to be a globally-oriented leader (sometimes to his detriment in effectiveness). While others had been proclaiming a clash of civilizations, as if the brain were at war within itself, he championed the view that our difficulties were a mirror of adjustment to globalization, to this new evolution of Intelligence.

Many of us, using the new technology, have seen a dream emerging into reality as our horizons expand beyond anything imaginable in our youth.  But we also know that personally, we can easily get overwhelmed by information. Struggling to relate to the new reality, we often exhaust ourselves – our nervous systems are overwhelmed, our time seems to dissipate, we find it difficult to make choices about how to connect, with whom, for what.  This is a challenge of learning something new – of becoming part of a bigger world – but it’s tricky, and we don’t always manage it well.

Just as a toddler will tantrum when over-stressed, as any child can fall back to its previous developmental stage (with parents moaning, “Why is he acting like a baby again?”), so with us. While using the tools of our new technology, we falter. “Too much too soon” is what educators tells us about a child who is in nursery school a bit too early.

We’re just a little over two years old in our new collective brain.  All the pieces that have to come together for us to function competently are not in place yet.  And in political developments – the polis, the public arena, analogous to the nursery school playroom – we are seeing eruptions.

Now, this seemed like a crazy comparison, so I went searching into infant development to see if there was anything remotely relevant.  I happened across some interesting studies reported in research by a group called Zero to Three, focusing on the development from infancy to early childhood.

Before three years old, kids aren’t highly developed in social interactions. In fact, most researchers hold that empathy doesn’t develop much before age five.  However, more in-depth research that depends less on verbal fluency has shown something different.  A fascinating experiment was designed to see whether babies can infer information about others from their behavior.  It turned out that if the experimenter asked a 15-month-old toddler to give her one of a choice of foods, the baby would give her what the baby liked.  But by 18 months of age, the toddler could discern from the experimenter’s previous behavior what the experimenter liked, and would give her that food.  Not only did it reveal inferential abilities, but also that the baby wanted to make the experimenter feel good. This is one of the roots of philanthropic behavior – I can act for something other than what I would want, on behalf of another person.

The enormous possibilities for this development in the global brain are astounding.  Tiffany Shlain gives us an example in her beautiful video The Adaptable Mind.  

At the same time, under stress or crisis, we will fall back into places where we think we can get emotional support – back to our 15-month-old brain. We need those places to recover resiliency.  Blocs of population that are less attuned, or have had less exposure and supportive learning with the new global brain, are more likely to slip out of sync.  And all of us born before 1980 know that, like a language, if you didn’t grow up with it, it’s much harder and sometimes humiliating (“if you can’t fix your smart phone, ask your kid”)!

Thus, over the last 10 years, which developmentally for the global brain would be the time of growing in empathic understanding and desire to give to one another, some parts of the brain are simply not there yet, or can’t sustain it.  In earlier eras, families and religious communities provided the back-up for individuals going through periods of stress. In the era of global brain, we go to social media “bubbles,” or “echo chambers,” where we get reinforcement on an emotional level from others who feel like us.

I hope this sounds familiar. We’ve thought that the stresses of cultural change / global-brain development would gradually dissolve, but instead they intensified and came home to roost in the past year.  We know that one half of the brain fighting another is not good, and the rise of nationalistic identities plus the information wars are exactly that.

A situation that lasts a month or two in the life of a toddler can be rectified.  If it becomes toxic stress, over years of abuse or conflicting demands, recovery is more difficult.

Where does that leave us?

First, don’t add to our stress by feeling guilty or making others feel that way.  Retreating to an echo chamber is like hunkering down in a hideout for awhile. These reactions are natural, on all sides.

Second, comforting experiences are important. Last week we had big rains in southern California, and a few people posted photos of amazing rainbows at the end of the storms. I was surprised to discover in myself how suddenly my tension levels dropped when I lingered a few minutes on the rainbows.  Find your favorite internet tension-relief spots. It’s like a loving parent showing up to give us a hug.

Third, since we don’t want the current stress to go on any longer than necessary, who’s going to drop their end of the rope and say, we’re not doing this tug-of-war anymore?  It’s hard, when you feel that something big is at stake, but brain health is pretty high priority. We have to engage our creativity to find other ways than continued push-and-pull.

Fourth, we can take a big perspective.  The brilliance of Shlain’s work is exactly that – to see ourselves as part of an organism that is evolving. Like the two-year-old who sees herself in the mirror, whose knowledge that she is a whole being affects her entire identity, we too are learning to see ourselves and our future differently.  We need to practice this perspective, remind ourselves daily.

In that big perspective, remember that your presumed ‘opponents’ are stressed out too. Even the president publicly said he needs to be among friends (2/18/17 rally in Florida). While I write that with a considerable dose of irony, there is a drop of sympathy too.

The sympathetic, philanthropic impulse is a matter of the soul. It becomes visible at a certain point in brain development, and that generous connection to the needs and desires of the other is the child’s first initiation into a larger world.  So also for the global brain. Patrick Harpur writes in The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, “There is always enough fear and pain to go around. The secret is to use these experiences for self-initiation.”

As we use our internet experiences for self-initiation – experiences of fear and pain as well as curiosity and joy – the perspective of the soul will be what allows us to heal the global brain in crisis, and draw out its potential for the future.

That Cunning Serpent

This post is the third of a series that began December 12th.

In my previous post, I explored some of issues around “greatness” which, as we saw, came up in the slogans of our recent elections.

Let’s be clear:  greatness isn’t evil.  Indeed, seeking greatness is natural.  In the Bible, it is embedded in the original instruction to Adam and Eve (and the fish) to be fruitful and multiply.  The word for “multiply” comes from the same Hebrew root that we often translate as “great.”  In ancient times when humans were few, becoming many, becoming “great” in number, was a key to survival.

Yet, the Bible tells us that corruption began to fill the world “when humanity began multiplying on the face of the earth” (Gen 6.1).  “Sons of gods,” probably meaning kings and nobles, began impregnating “daughters of men.”  This sounds like harems or exercising the ancient “right of the first night.” “Strong men,” “men of renown,” took over and imposed their will on others.  The “imagination of man’s heart” became “evil continually” (6:4-5).  What had happened?

The old story of the serpent gives us a clue.  Recall that the cunning serpent enticed Chava (Eve) to eat of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil by saying, “You won’t die… You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Then the text reports Chava’s experience. She saw “that the tree was good to eat, and that it was desirable to the eyes, and the tree was pleasant for gaining insight, and she took from its fruit and ate” (Gen 3: 4-6).

She couldn’t see anything except goodness, beauty, and clarity in that tree.  What had tempted her was the idea of greatness, of being more than she already was, “like God,” and specifically by the possibility of knowing something that, until then, was beyond her – namely evil.

The serpent was indeed cunning, because he was manipulating her ignorance. She had no idea what evil was.  To her it might as well have been called “the tree of the knowledge of good and zlwgoeinv.”  Evil, of course, was what the serpent had done – confused her by contradicting what she had been told, and claiming that God had actually hidden the truth from her.

(Today we would call it fake news.)

Adam followed her down that path, and they found themselves hiding from God, lying, and blaming others.  They discovered not greatness but shame.  God postponed the death penalty; but instead of the goodness, delight, and clarity that Chava had glimpsed in the tree, she and Adam faced lives of struggle and pain.

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In these texts, thousands of years ago, human beings already understood that lies and manipulations, the cunning of the serpent, were the source of humanity’s problems. The serpent said, “You will be like God.” Soon men would claim to be sons of gods.  Later, when Moses warned the people about claiming their wealth as “the work of my own hands,” or of kings “multiplying horses and wives for themselves,” he was referring to the same problem.

I would add one inner dimension, which we also saw in the last post:  The lies promote the idea that “I did it myself,” and pride arises instead of gratitude for all the help we have received. That is the place where we have to do the work. The awareness of our own limits, the feeling of gratitude, the knowledge that the source of success is beyond ourselves – those enable us to feel humility.  And humility is what humanizes greatness.

Greatness and Goodness

This post is the second of a series that began on December 12th

In my last post, I talked about getting beyond the trauma and distress of an unexpected and unpleasant surprise – a major disappointment – such as the election results. Specifically, rushing into action immediately may not be the best course.  After all, the fact that we were taken by surprise means that our assessment of reality wasn’t at its best; so we need to get a different perspective (see “The Forest and the Trees”).

The question that arises is not simply a strategic one (how to win the next election), but what kind of society do we want?  A lot of people weren’t happy with any candidate’s ideas for the future. There were 19 candidates altogether in the two major parties! Forty-one per cent of eligible voters didn’t vote for a president at all.  We can blame media and misinformation for some of this, but still…. What is going on?

I titled this site “Inner Dimensions” because I think one can’t solve an outward problem without also attending to its inner dimensions.  Outer action matters, but it has to be connected to the inner, invisible qualities of whatever is happening. You can throw money at a problem, but if that’s all you do, you will only get a temporary solution. You can pave the crack in the road, but if you haven’t checked what’s happening underneath, the crack may come right back again.

In a society, the inner dimensions are the values of the people, the motives that habitually spur them to action, the characteristic attitudes that shape our interactions with one another.

In an election campaign, the managers try to capture the inner will of the people with their campaign slogans.  Interestingly, both major party candidates this year had similar slogans.  One was greatness, as in “Make America great again,” and the other was strength, as in “We’re stronger together.”  Think what message is implied here: If we need to be stronger, are we weak?  If we need to be great again, does that mean we are small? Hmm…

Of course, it’s also true that Hillary Clinton’s slogan emphasized another word:  together. Donald Trump’s campaign was clearly built around a “strongman” approach (including the gender).  But the slogans captured – or amplified – a concern about American strength.  I couldn’t find a previous presidential campaign that was built on such an idea except for one that used “proud” in the slogan. Sample themes have been freedom, prosperity, peace, normalcy, compassion, as well as ideas of change, progress or improvement – but not strength or greatness as such.

Greatness or strength certainly is an American value. In the past hundred and fifty years we moved from being a curiosity for European visitors to a major military power, an exemplar of democracy, freedom, and pluralism with stability, a home to innovation and expansion in industry, science, and technology.  We are rightly proud of many features of our society and, if we are losing status in the world, we definitely would value restoring the nation to greatness.

But we also know that greatness by itself does not guarantee a good life.  Greatness and goodness do not always go together.  In fact, great power or great wealth can lead to arrogance, and that’s dangerous.

The founders of the United States of America knew the Hebrew Bible well – what they called the Old Testament. They would have been familiar with this passage, from an address by Moses to his people shortly before his death:

When your herds and flocks become great, and great amounts of silver and gold are yours, and all that you have becomes great, then your heart feels elevated…. and you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand made for me this wealth.”… But you must remember the Lord Your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth… (Deuteronomy 8:13-18).

Actually, the word translated “wealth” here, which makes sense in the context, usually means something more like valor, courage, or audacity.  (The same word is used in the famous passage from the end of Proverbs, “Woman of Valor,” which is recited in Jewish households on Friday night in honor of the woman of the house.)  In understanding this passage, we should remember that larger meaning:  When you have achieved outer “greatness” in wealth and possessions, you may feel inwardly strong – but if you have forgotten the Source of your wealth, the passage goes on to say, “you will certainly perish.”

The Sages say that even with God, “Wherever you find greatness, you find humility.” Though God has the power to create and destroy, nevertheless God consults with others – for example with the angels in creating man, with Abraham before destroying Sodom, with Moses when He is angry with the Israelites.

If this is true with God, how much more so among human beings.  So too with nations.  Our founders understood that greatness can lead to tyranny, and that goodness requires humility, respect for others, prudence, and in matters of state, due process and the consent of the governed.

We all know some of the key phrases of our famed revolutionary document, but it’s worth reading the entire Declaration, which you can do at this link.  How have we lived their vision till today?

We want a good society, not only a great one.  To be continued.

Lowest Denominator or Highest Ideals?

I listened today to a podcast conversation that took place about a month ago between two eminent journalists and commentators, David Brooks and E. J. Dionne, representing different faiths, on the relation between religion and politics.  I want to talk about one point they made.

Both sides in the recent presidential campaign were caught up in a depiction of Americans as primarily concerned about the material sides of their lives:  The economy, the cost of health care, the recession and technology that took their jobs, and also the wealth of donors, the paid lobbyists, not to mention the wealth of candidates themselves.

Brooks and Dionne posed the question, do we think so little of our citizens that we imagine all they think about is money?

What about ideals and greater goals?  What about the future we want for our children?  What about values like love and compassion, giving and receiving?  Dionne wished for a campaign to “make America empathetic again.”

Is part of our pain, anger, fear, shame, or defensiveness – pick one or more depending on where you are in the post-election spectrum – that we don’t want to show we care about higher ideals or we’ll be laughed at?  We don’t want to say we care about the folks on the other side (who sometimes are our own families, right?) lest we be rejected?

What if we could forget the statistics and the groupings just for a little while – take a break from all that?  The United States of America was built on ideals, not calculations;  if candidates are trying to target the lowest common “denominator,” they are turning us all into “numbers.”

This nation was driven by dreams, not dynasties – despite names like Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, Clinton, and Trump.  The dreams live in each person’s heart, not in programs and policies.

This country was built on the new (in the 18th century) idea of the individual.  Based on the biblical view of human beings as each created “in the image of God,” it promised equality to all.   Admittedly, it took a long time to extend equal rights to everyone, not just of free speech, assembly, and religion, but of owning property, owning their own labor, being allowed to vote, rights to marry and to privacy.  “Details to be worked out later” — but we still live by that bold vision.

Inherent in that notion of individuality is that each person has a soul, if you accept the spiritual terminology, or perhaps a “unique constitution,” if you’re a humanist.  When you begin to open to the inner reality of another person, says Brooks, “you see what each soul longs for.”

Jewish homiletic tradition (midrash) tells it this way:  When a person walks down the street, he is accompanied by a band of angels proclaiming, “Baruch ha-ba!  Blessed is this one coming down the street, made in the image of the Holy One!”

Everyone, without exception.

Can we translate that into our public life, our common life, after the enormous turmoil and trauma of this season?  Actually, yes, through what Dionne calls our “capacious imagination.” Expand your view.  Next time you see someone on the street, imagine him or her being accompanied by a couple of angels announcing this person’s beautiful soul.  Next time you watch someone on a video a news show, imagine a chorus of angels around them.  And watch your own reaction.  You may laugh or shudder, but also think about it.

When, on occasion, you can feel that amplified presence of the other, you may recognize something else that David Brooks identified:  “The message is the person.”  More important than speeches or arguments, good qualities are trying to find expression through that holy presence.

When we can feel those good qualities together, communities start to form. First around support, then around common needs, shared gifts, common purposes.

Dionne said something else, quoting political philosopher Michael Sandell:  “When politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”  I suspect we have more work to do before politics can go well again.  Still, we can set ourselves on a path to discover dimensions of goodness that we could not have discovered on our own.

Thanks to my friend and spiritual colleague, Dr. Connie Kaplan, for recommending this podcast to me.