In The World’s Religions, Huston Smith wrote: “We can define theology as the systematization of thoughts about the symbols that religious experience gives rise to.”
Take a moment to think about that sentence.
I did. It stuck with me. In fact, I thought about it so much that it became the basis for an interfaith model that I created.
For clarity, it is helpful to reverse engineer Smith’s sentence.
Ergo: Experience is the starting point, theology is the outcome.
Why is that important? Because, most of us define religions by customs, rituals, and stories, not by their spiritual underpinnings, and, as a result, religious and spiritual experiences get pushed to the side.
Hunger for Direct Experiences
Today, people hunger for direct experiences like never before. They want peace of mind, genuine feelings of love and compassion, a deepened sense of empathy, a feeling of being calm in the storm, and much more. With this in mind, why don’t more religious institutions focus on experience?
In his masterpiece, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James proposes an answer. According to James, a prophet’s journey usually begins with a religious experience. If the prophet starts to preach based on that experience, he is promptly labeled a madman. If, however, the theology spreads, it is labeled as heresy. Finally, if the theology survives persecution, it becomes orthodoxy. At that point, according to James, its days of “inwardness” are over, because orthodoxy effectively stops “all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.”
Forgiveness is an internal process of letting go. The one who forgives refuses to allow destructive emotions to live rent-free in his or her head and stops wishing for a better past. True forgiveness is about reclaiming control of one’s own emotions.
When someone forgives, he or she is neither condoning behavior nor reconnecting automatically with the perpetrator. I emphasize this, because many people erroneously think that when they forgive they are saying that what happened was okay and now they have to be best friends with the person and/or organization that they are forgiving.
People can internally forgive by letting go of destructive emotions that are eating them up from the inside, they can free themselves from the hate and anger that are consuming them, but, at the same time, they can be strongly opposed to the behavior that hurt them, seek justice or reparations, and refuse to reconnect with the persons or organizations at fault, all while being emotionally free and tempered.
When I was in my early twenties I quit smoking. It was a filthy habit that I’d picked up when I was twelve years old and in my teens I had been responsible for introducing cigarettes to a number of people.
After I quit, I felt badly about that. I knew that I couldn’t go back in time and fix what I had done, so I decided to do something for the future.
My approach to quitting had been successful, so I started sharing the technique with others. That led to ten years of smoking cessation seminars and books in both Icelandic and English. I also teamed up with a public health organization and started giving smoking prevention lectures in schools.
That Feeling When You Are Not Welcome
Have you ever walked into a room and felt that you were not welcome? That’s how I felt just about every time I walked into a room full of students and was introduced as the smoking prevention guy.
Instead of being discouraged, I took it as a challenge and spiced up my approach.
I got better and better at captivating attention and engaging young adults in dialogue about the importance of living life fully (one of the things I emphasized). I swung between being adversarial (“I don’t care if you die because we’ll all die”) and inspirational (“you only get one life and it’s the quality that counts.”).
I gained attention and got along well with the adults who liked my approach, which meant that I got booked in dozens of schools every year. However, even as I got better at presenting the material, I never captured everyone’s attention.
In pagan times, people gave thanks to different gods for varying aspects of their lives, for example by giving thanks to the sun god for sustaining life and the rain god for watering their crops. Being at the mercy of natural forces, people saw gods at play in every aspect of their lives.
All that changed with the advent of the one God of Judaism. One formidable God replaced an assembly of characters, making it so that all thanks and petitions were aimed in one direction.
In modern times, can we do both and be grateful to the web of life while also thanking the creator and sustainer of life?
Here is a little thought experiment to test that theory. I am sitting at my desk and noticing the things around me. I wonder, should I go straight to the source in gratitude for my chair, my computer, my table, my pens, my whiteboard, and so on? Wouldn’t I be cutting out individual parts of creation, the people who made all these things I am enjoying and the elements from which they are made? If I truly appreciate creation, shouldn’t I be thankful for all of it?
Shouldn’t I be thankful for the natural elements from which these things on my desk were made, most of which I cannot name?
Shouldn’t I be thankful to the miners who dug up these materials, the people who transported and processed them, the designers and engineers who created my computer, and the software programmers who wrote the code that allows me to type at lightning speed while listening to my favorite classical music at the same time?
How far back should I go? The creation of the Earth? The Big Bang? Further?
When I take time to appreciate the role that all of creation plays in this moment—from the origins of the universe to the creation of the elements to all the people who have done mental and physical work to create my surroundings—it becomes crystal clear to me that everything is connected to everything else. It is impossible to ever be alone in this world.
Based on my little thought experiment, it’s clear to me that it’s both possible and feasible to combine methods of gratitude. I can be thankful for individual parts of creation while also appreciating the creative and sustaining force behind all of it.
I am a big proponent of the Golden Rule. “Treat others as you want to be treated” is a sentiment that is found in some form in all religions. Jesus went further that most when he usurped all other commandments and told his followers to love God and love their neighbors as they would themselves—a tall order indeed.
The difficulty becomes apparent when we take a step back and ask what needs to happen before we can follow the Golden Rule. The dilemma can be boiled down to a single question: Do we love ourselves enough to want to be treated well and are we willing to extend that care to others?
Not Always Loving
I have not always been a model citizen. In all honesty, I have gone through periods in my life where I earned the pun on my name (Hi, I’m Gudjon, used to be Bad-John). But in hindsight, I can safely say that when I hurt other people, it usually went hand in hand with low self-esteem.
For example, I went through several years as a young adult when I was being bullied. During that time, I went out of my way to make sure others felt as miserable as I did. Later in life, I was in a relationship where I was loved but felt that I wasn’t worthy of love and sabotaged the relationship. And currently, even on my best days, I have moments where I look in the mirror and feel ‘less than’ and that affects my interactions with others.
From what I have seen and heard during my years on this Earth, I am not alone. It seems that most (if not all) of us go through periods where we do not love ourselves and feel that we should not be treated well. That gives some of us (not all) internal permission to treat others badly. When my daughter was nine, she wisely said that she tries to keep it to herself when she is feeling bad and not lash out at others to make them feel bad.
Words are the means by which we communicate. They point to things, emotions, and ideas. They help us understand each other. Words only come into being when two or more people have the same or similar experience and need to be able to talk about it. But through use, the meaning of words changes, and sometimes it is important to revisit the original intent to better understand.
Socrates reportedly said that he never wrote anything down because then he couldn’t be the steward of his words; he wanted to be present to guide people towards the real meaning of what he was saying. Although his premise still holds true, writing nevertheless one of the best means of communications we have, and in writing, as in religion, words matter.
In this article, I want to explore four examples from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
In the wake of the midterm elections in the USA, we asked Dr. Willerton, who was a participant in one of our courses last summer, to send us an outline for his course called The Politics of Happiness. From what we gather, this is the only political science course in the USA that focuses intently on the relationship between politics and happiness. It is offered through the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Here is what he sent us:
The Pursuit of Happiness
Our one-semester course focuses on human well-being through an inter-disciplinary, comparative cross-national examination of more than nine countries. Beginning with the United States, the first country to set as a goal the pursuit of happiness, and continuing to Sweden, with its emphasis on community and social justice, we consider numerous political, social, economic, and cultural factors that affect human happiness and well-being.
During our fifteen weeks together, among other topics, we examine gender issues in France, issues of tolerance and the rights of sexual orientation minorities in the Netherlands, and the dilemmas of nationalism in the historically complex relations between the German-speaking and Central-East European Jewish civilizations. After considering the politics of sectarianism in religiously diverse Lebanon, we analyze the “Russian soul” and an evolving post-Soviet Russia, and we evaluate the challenges of modernization in fast-changing China. Our course ends in the remote Himalayan country of Bhutan which, since 1972, has promoted Gross National Happiness, an initiative grounded in good governance, economic development, preservation of the environment, and the safeguarding of the family and the country’s unique culture.
Democracy presents an interesting dilemma. There needs to be a degree of social harmony to facilitate the peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other after elections. Simultaneously, we need to have vigorous ideological debates about how to achieve the common good, which is what a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ should ultimately work towards
The question of how to balance these two competing interests is the critical issue of our times and it depends on several elements.
The greatest tonic for an ailing democracy seems to be increased participation. If people are averse to the political process and complain that “it’s too divisive,” then they leave it to those who are more fervent (extreme) to decide the outcome for everyone. If only a few percent choose the candidates on the ballots through primaries and fewer than half of voting-age adults participate then that does not present a dissection of the nation. Study after study has shown that increased participation leads to more compromise and working across the aisle… and that turns out to be good for everyone, not just the select few.
In a survey published this fall, More in Common found that two-thirds of the electorate is ‘exhausted’ by the current political atmosphere and wants elected officials to find more ways to work together. That is understandable. A normal society thrives on compromise. Look at families, schools, workplaces, and public spaces. Without cooperation, none of those societal elements would work. Compromise is such a fundamental principle in human interactions that people are generally good at making concessions in their daily lives. The sentiment should seep into public policy and yet it only happens when more people participate in the political process.
I am old enough to remember when the Internet was new. The spiritual community had high hopes. “The Internet is going to be like a big city, where diversity will become the new normal and usher in an age of understanding and compassion,” my friends said. “Yes, the Internet will be like the coastal town where Gandhi grew up, where the temple priests read equally from the Bible, Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita,” I responded.
But that’s not how it has turned out, is it? In fact, some suggest that hate has won the Internet. Extremist groups, many of which had almost become extinct, now thrive. Anyone who expresses his or her opinion online is likely to get trolled by haters. And many react viscerally to other people’s ideas, otherizing each other in the process.
While I don’t think that hate has won (yet), the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. In this article, I want to examine two ideas that partially explain why the Internet has become so divisive.
We pray in the name of all traditions.
May we practice our faith with sincerity,
increase our capacity for love,
and unveil the peaceful essence we seek.
May our faith transmute anger into action,
melt away hatred with love,
and spur us to serve the poor, sick, and old.
May our strong attraction to one path,
not create repulsion for other paths.
May we allow other people to foster their beliefs,
even when we think they are wrong.
May we remember that we all belong to one human race,
that ideologies and theologies are only a part of who we are,
and that we all share traits that make us human.
May we honor diversity when appropriate,
celebrate unity when we see it,
and find ways to work together.
May we learn to disagree without being disagreeable,
sow the seeds of peace when we encounter hostility,
and rejoice in friendliness wherever we find it.
We ask for strength to overcome prejudices,
clarity to see our biases,
and courage to act justly in the face of injustice.
When I went to the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan this summer, I was treated to a charming and random act of kindness. As soon as I purchased museum admission, my friend and I were presented with mysterious folded and sealed letters. I opened my letter and was delighted to find a unique and thoughtful note: “Please enjoy the entire museum. Start from the top and work your way down. Smile today. Be the reason someone else smiles today. Enjoy!”
I was intrigued as to what prompted my new friend Gia to spend time on this gesture of kindness for a person she didn’t know, and whose reaction she wouldn’t see. I soon found out. Rounding the corner, I came across an invitation to write a letter of my own.
This invitation spoke of the “karmic ripples” one can create by participating in this delightful act of kindness. Having been touched by Gia, I paid it forward, and felt like an integral link in a chain of visitors, connected across time and experience.
It was a small but uplifting moment. It can be hard to feel positive these days, which often feel divisive, even dehumanizing.
It seems like we’re stuck in an unending chain of negativity. We’re more polarized than ever and a splintered news media entrenches us further. Social media algorithms ensure our existing views are reinforced. When we venture out of our social media bunkers we can find ourselves in conversation threads that bring out the worst in us, sending us back to our tribe and perpetuating our distrust of others.
That unexpected pay-it-forward experience at the Rubin Museum reestablished my feeling of interconnectedness. I knew that this experience made me feel good, and I wondered, can random acts of kindness jolt us out of an us-vs-them mentality and restore our faith in humanity?
The Psychological Benefits that Come with Random Acts of Kindness
Science supports that these little acts of kindness can have a big emotional impact. The ripples are real. Whether a giver, a receiver, or even simply an observer of a kindness, we are positively impacted both individually and collectively.
My fellow Americans,
I think it is time we talked. Not argued, but talked, you know, like adults do when they attempt to resolve their differences. Before we do, though, I believe that we need to make some adjustments to our approach. To assist with that process, allow me reference three ideas we use here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, each of them addressing major points in regards to dialogue and reconciliation.
The Human Persona and The Ideological Persona
Padraig O’Malley, who was a facilitator during the Northern Ireland peace process, made the case that each human being has two personas, the ideological persona and the human persona. He pointed out that the only way to dehumanize the other is to see him or her only in terms of ideology and forget their humanity.
Think about that for a moment. Whenever we use an ideological label to describe a person, we fall into the trap of dehumanizing. It’s a great way to polarize, but a lousy way to live and can only lead to further divisions and hostilities.
Based on O’Malley’s concept, the first step towards dialogue is to remember that we are human and that the person on the other side of the discussion is also human, not merely a Christian or a Muslim, a conservative or a liberal, a snowflake or a gun rights activist, a climate warrior or a climate denier. Those are ideological stances people have taken, not something they are born with.
In our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, we are constantly reaching out to people and offering them our services. As one would expect, we get mixed responses. I’ve personally been surprised by one repeated response that I had not anticipated. In hindsight, maybe I should have seen it coming.
Here is what the gist of the response sounds like: “We are in complete harmony with each other here at the [church, temple, synagogue, spiritual center] and would welcome any and all to come and be with us. We see no need to engage in interfaith efforts at this time.” Reading between the lines, one can interpret the response this way: “We are okay. It’s them, not us.”
Maybe that is at the heart of the problem. No one thinks that they are to blame. Few are willing to accept responsibility and try to bridge divides. Think about it. Liberals think that conservatives are to blame for the ill will that exists between them, and Conservatives think Liberals are to blame. Christians think that Muslims are to blame and vice versa. The list goes on. Even interfaith activists think that those who refuse to participate are to blame.
We Are All Involved
In his interreligious principles, Dr. Leonard J. Swidler, points out that those who engage in interfaith dialogue need to be, “minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions.”
Harmony. Dignity. Compassion. Civility. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Words to live by. Words to heal by. How good it is to hear voices near and far proclaim such words in a world in which they seem so under siege and out of style.
I have long been a person who reacts, as many do, with a sense of moral outrage to divisiveness, prejudice, selfishness, and extremism. Nevertheless, I have mostly sat by passively, hoping for better things to come. But in recent times "better things" seem to be growing more and more scarce. The tides of change seem to be accelerating in the wrong direction.
Polarized When Anonymous
Some time ago I reached a point where a voice within my heart could no longer be silenced. If I was not in some way part of a solution, I was part of the problem. I began reading. I started with Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving. That led me to Donna Hicks’ Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict. I continued reading similar works and discovering web sites like this one that offered solutions and told stories of changed lives.
Early in my research I settled on a model that made sense to me and that seemed within my reach to implement. It assumes that dissimilar or opposing groups are most likely to become polarized when they are most anonymous to each other. I can only violate someone’s dignity if I first make him less than human in my mind. The seeds of acrimony grow where people are lumped into stereotypes, where they are misunderstood, where they are demonized.
To the extent this is true, an effective antidote may be found in breaking through the anonymity. I began to make plans to bring people from opposite sides of divides together in face-to-face, small group meetings where each person has a name and a face and a story about how they came to be the way they are. In an effort to brand the concept, I began to call it Dignity Dialogues. Mind you, I branded it only as a way to refer to the model, not with any thought of making it a business.
Human beings have a tendency to place other human beings on a pedestal. We look for examples of perfection and hold them up in contrast with the fallibility of the rest of us. Perfection is the ideal, the aspiration, the pinnacle. We long for it. And yet, more often than not, it turns out to be a mirage, a form of wishful thinking.
It's a story as old as time. A portrait of perfection is toppled when someone gets close enough to the person in question to see the truth (which is that some people are better than others, but none of us are truly perfect or infallible). An old Indian aphorism exemplifies this when it tells us that spiritual masters are like fire. If you are too far away, you get no heat. If you come too close, you get burned.
For most of us, if not all, perfection is not in the cards. But progress is. And we can all strive to be better.
Why Choose Progress?
Encouraging people to choose progress over perfection has become a staple in psychology, especially in cognitive behavioral therapy. In his landmark book, Feeling Good, one of the pioneers of CBT, David D. Burns wrote:
“Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.”
Happier and more productive. That sounds like a recipe for creating harmony from within.
Setting Ourselves Up for Failure
If this is true about individuals, isn’t it doubly true about groups? Aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure by aiming for perfect interactions or expecting too much from each other?
In fields such as interfaith work, community bridge building and social harmony, we cannot allow ourselves to be tempted by perfection. If we are expecting flawlessness, we will fail to see progress. For example:
In my line work, I am fortunate enough to cross paths with great people that are doing important work all around the globe, from South Africa to Great Britain, Canada to India, Texas to Minneapolis, and beyond.
All the people I communicate with at this level are working actively towards social harmony. For one reason or another, they have realized that social harmony is the cornerstone of society. Instead of seeing it as something nice or pleasant, they see it as imperative, in the same category as food, roads, education, and healthcare.
Seeing the Shadow or Being Whipped
An ancient parable tells us that a wise horse moves when he sees the shadow of the whip, while a foolish horse needs to be whipped every step of the way. The people I work with have seen the shadow that social discord is creating.
Last summer, I facilitated a course with nearly three hundred people from over twenty countries. More than half of them attended the course because they recognized the signs of division and acrimony as potentially dangerous. All of them wanted to learn strategies to push against the forces of friction and work towards social harmony.
Sadly, many in the larger population refuse to see the shadows of the ‘whips’ that are being cast all around them. Like the foolish horse, they are waiting for the whip to crack on their backside before they move a muscle. By then it may be too late.
When religion is based on fear, not Love,
You cannot feel that God's within,
You're stuck with the fear of "that God above,"
And spend your days in dreading "sin,"
You feel threatened that folks outside
Will obscure the "divine truth" from others,
And cannot see it's not they who hide,
The Oneness you share with all sisters and brothers,
You cling to verses in a book,
And dare not go within yourself,
You cannot take that deeper look,
When you put the book up on the shelf,
The darkest fears then make you tell,
All sorts of lies you think are real,
You'd rather say, "Kill the infidel!"
Than see inside behind your zeal,
Plowing Heaven under, creating "hell,"
You run from what you cannot feel,
And while obsessed with hatred and killing,
Far from the Truth behind your chapter and verse,
Seeing only difference in those unwilling
To follow your way, you make things worse.
I care about society. That is why I have always had an interest in politics. Not because of the personal attacks, drama, and larger than life personalities, but because of the implications on society. More than once in the past few years I have been tempted to throw myself into the mix and start running for office. But then I stop a moment, think about the implications and withdraw.
Why? Because I want to work towards a more harmonious society and in order to become elected in the current atmosphere the business of politics expects the opposite. Even those who champion equal rights and harmony have begun stooping to the level of name-calling and grandstanding. It seems that (almost) every politician is forced to take tougher and more unequivocal stances to get elected. There is no room for nuance or working across the isle.
The same is true about activists. They need to take ever-tougher stances (it seems) and scream bloody murder on social media and in the streets to gain attention. I hear what they are saying and agree with a lot of it, but again, it seems counter to the goal of creating social harmony where people can civilly air their disagreements without demonizing each other.
King and Gandhi
The more I study what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi did in their nonviolent movements, the more impressed I am with the poise they showed in the face of adversity and their unwavering commitment to love.
It’s easy to become angry and irritated in the face of injustice, biases, and discrimination and respond in kind. It’s also easy to become so overwhelmed and enraged that it feels justified and like the right thing to do. I know that both Gandhi and King struggled with those emotions time and time again but they restrained themselves, both advocating love for those who would call themselves their enemies. That must have taken will, determination, and faith.
We have incredible amounts of information at our fingertips. Anyone with a smartphone can get educated about whatever they are interested in—for free. But something has gone terribly wrong. What was once dubbed the Age of Information can now rightfully be called the Age of Misinformation… and we are all a part of the problem.
I get it. Controversy screams at us in a sea of endless information. It self-perpetuates through a cycle of clicks and shares and is fueled by supporters, trolls and outrage.
But at what point will we stop and realize that this trend has turned into a harmful addiction?
When will we realize that we have created an undercurrent of division that has played right into the hands of those who generate the acrimony, and have, quite frankly, succeeded in disrupting our society far beyond their wildest dreams?
When will we accept responsibility for our own part in creating this online phenomenon?
And when will we collectively realize that the only solution is to stop clicking on everything that triggers us, to stop feeding the monster of division?
A wild campion flower that bloomed in an arctic meadow when mammoths and woolly rhinoceros walked the Earth offered me hope in a difficult time, and I believe she offers hope and guidance for our struggling world today.
Within her delicate white petals and slender dark green leaves is a dramatic tale. She died in the late Pleistocene age 32,000 years ago, stored in an arctic squirrel’s burrow on the banks of the Kolyma River in far eastern Siberia, buried by windblown silt of the ice age, captured in frozen ground 125 feet below the surface of the Earth. Now, she is reborn, having been resurrected by Russian scientists.
When I laid eyes on the little arctic flower in The New York Times, 2.20.2012, I felt ancient memories stir. She entered my consciousness as I stood on the doorway of my sixties weary from months of chemo, surgery, and radiation for breast cancer, thankful for life. Her translucent white petals reminded me of long forgotten dreams. As she was recovered from the frozen dark depths, I would begin to delve into my inner world, my frozen dark depths, and rise naked to buried grief, which helped me to let go of my past and be more alive to the present.
I imagine the ancient flower’s mythical story. Dying in a long-ago cycle of life on Earth, she has returned from the underworld to show her beauty and strength to our world in 2012, the year the Mayan’s predicted the end of a great cycle and the beginning of a new cycle of Life on Earth. She embodies yin and yang, male and female; and she is here to guide us as we learn to not fear the mammoths of our time but to join together in a river of compassion and bear witness to the many stories of pain and suffering.
We are told not to talk about ideological differences. Look at where that has gotten us. We are more ideologically divided than ever before. Maybe we should reconsider? These are important topics worthy of conversation. For example, when we discuss politics, we are debating what kind of society we want to live in, and when we discuss religion, we are speaking of personal values and spiritual inclinations.
If we want to have civil discussions, we need to make a distinction between two competing elements that are found within each human being. Equipped with that understanding, we can practice talking to each other rather than talking at each other.
Human and Ideological Personas
The idea of the two personas—which is central to our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative and was originally presented by Padraig O’Malley who took part in the Northern Ireland peace process—explains the distinction we need to make if we want to have meaningful discussions. According to O’Malley, each human being is a mix of two personas. One is human the other ideological.
A number of the world’s religions have made the cultivation of goodness their primary goal, which—for a lack of another word—is good. Goodness is both a lofty and worthy ideal. Who wouldn’t want to be able to display more empathy, kindness, love, altruism, and compassion?
Having said that, there are two very different ways to achieve the goal of becoming a better person that have to do with strong emotions of attraction and repulsion. We call this the attraction-repulsion principle.
To understand the dynamics, it is important to realize that goodness cannot exist in a vacuum since it is a dualistic concept. For goodness to exist there has to exist something other than goodness. This means that when we are attracted by what we perceive as good, we are naturally repulsed by the opposite. The stronger our attraction, the stronger the repulsion can become.
Attraction Automatically Generates Repulsion
One approach to cultivating goodness focuses on the beneficial elements of changing one’s behavior; the other focuses on the detrimental aspects of the opposite behavior. One embraces on the sun while the other tries to eliminate the shadow.
“Focus on the sun! The shadow can’t be eliminated!” one could exclaim.
Sure. It would probably be better if we could just focus on the positive aspects of goodness and cultivate niceties without accruing any dislike for their opposites, but it is harder than you think—near impossible I would say.
Students are always astounded when I tell them about the role that poetry has always played in cultures throughout history. “Come on,” they laugh almost in unison. “Poetry?” But the truth is poetry has always been with us, most probably since the beginning of language.
Its origin is most likely rooted in the sacred, what was the beginning of ritual and religion. Members of the community who acted as interpreters between humanity and the abundant natural gods that were believed to exist in hunter-gatherer clans and tribes, what we anthropologists call animism, couldn’t just speak in everyday language when communicating with the gods or spirits; anyone could do that. Instead, these shamans employed their own language, their own elevated or exalted speech patterns that sounded like they must indeed be speaking to the “other world.” Shamans passed on their secret knowledge to apprentices. Over time, these special speech language patterns may have become what we presently call poetry.
I am by no means the first to make such a claim. My friend Gary Snyder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poetry, drew similar connections decades ago, when I was a boy.
Ritual and Religion
Poetry’s connection to ritual and religion is still with us today. Consider the Psalms in The Old Testament. The Qur’an is said to be poetic, if not poetry altogether. Many other seminal texts of world religions contain poetry. I recently finished reading a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, a major poetic text in Daoism (also spelled Taoism). Even Confucius wrote poetry. In Hinduism, the Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem. The oldest existing literature, the epic of The Gilgamesh, written in Mesopotamia around 2100 B.C.E., is a poem. Not only is it a poem, but it centers on two main characters, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who was created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh. In fact, the whole story involves the frequent intervention of gods. Within the epic are also the stories of The Garden of Eden and The Flood (see The Flood tablet at left), both of which eventually made their way into the Old Testament. Even our childhood bedtime prayers are poetry:
One of my favorite books by Erich Fromm is titled The Art of Loving. His main message is that cultivating love is an art form. Fromm gives examples of innate talents in everything from painting to dance to music to acting, showing the reader that natural talent only accounts for a small percentage of the art created by the artist.
For example, someone who sits at the piano and starts playing the Moonlight Sonata at an early age (like my son did) has to practice hard if professional status is ever to be achieved (which he did not, opting for the trumpet instead).
Practice. That is the key element for Fromm. The ability to love takes practice because the innate feeling can only take us so far.
My Own Experiences With Love
Having been married since 2001 and having spent the last fifteen years taking care of my children, I can attest to that. My initial feelings, both for my wife and for my children, were only seeds. I’ve had to nurture and weed on a continual basis. Thankfully, my ability to love has grown because I have made it a priority in my life. Now, because of great social unrest, I am doing the same in the area of social harmony.
One of the biggest surprises and joys in my sixties is that I decided to volunteer as an education advisor for the Charter For Compassion. I had signed the Charter for Compassion declaration several years ago confirming my support for all that the charter stands for and does. It was wonderful to affirm a document that expressed so deeply all that I am about at my core. For a long time thereafter I would receive their emails in my inbox. I remember always saying to myself, “Someday I will get involved in the great things the Charter does.”
Bridge Building and Social Harmony
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We envision a world where people have access to strategies, methods and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge building across divides. To us, interfaith means the continual improvement of interrelations between people who strongly believe in different worldviews.
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©Harmony Interfaith Initiative
Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
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