Monthly Archives: January 2014

Newsletter – January 2014 #2












“My life was also changed by discovering a simple method for grateful living: ‘Stop, Look, Go!’ ‘Stop,’ so as not to rush past the opportunity of the moment; ‘Look,’ for the given opportunity; and ‘Go!’ meaning ‘make something of this given opportunity here and now!’”



January Part 2 Greetings, Dear Friends…

I am finally ready to write the last two months’ Musings because enough of the clarity I sought has come to me. When I had my time of being a bit incapacitated over Christmas (and that’s all it was – just being a bit slowed down so I couldn’t proceed with life as normal for a few weeks), I began a month-long process of ‘remembering what I already know.” This is part of a quote that comes from Richard Bach’s Illusions…

Learning is remembering what you already know.

Teaching is just reminding others that they know as well as you.

Doing is proving you can remember.

Bach’s actual quote reads, ‘“Learning is finding out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, teachers.” Since I’ve always found the ‘Doing’ much more difficult than the ‘Learning’ and ‘Teaching’, I did this bit of tailoring to fit my experience.

My overwhelming experience as a teacher, counselor, consultant, partner and parent is having lived a life of being able to grasp concepts quickly and communicate them effectively to others – but it has taken me literally decades to live my way into turning those learnings and teachings into ongoing, reasonably consistent behavior. That I’ve actually made and recognized my surprising progress here was the gift of my being slowed known over the holidays.

Since I absolutely had to make real adjustments to getting around Scott, Sophie and Etienne’s delightfully decorated home, I did. The gift was that I made those adjustments without resentment or irritation and, in fact, discovered I truly enjoyed making them as a creative process of living! While this may seem no big deal to those of you who always had maturity, flexibility and an adaptable personality like I’m now experiencing, it’s a huge and delightful transformation for this habitually impatient and driven old man.

For most of my 75 years I’ve been a person who always wanted to be moving at his own pace in his own direction. I can remember being terribly frustrated when going on our two-mile run in the morning at an Outward Bound program in 1971 by having to continually adjust myself to the varying speeds of the group. Either I would be running up the back of the person in front of me or feeling pushed from behind, and I thoroughly resented both. As my family and friends can tell you, I could be a very nasty person when my personal momentum was hindered in any way by the world, and this ranged from being blocked from driving to consulting gig by icy roads right down to smashing a telephone that wouldn’t let me dial. Of course, I was unwilling to call these ‘childish tantrums’, but that’s definitely what they were, and I regularly behaved like a spoiled brat who demanded reality adjust to his every whim. Why I managed to keep family or friends is a mystery to me now.

But, as I had to make continual adjustments to reality during this last month, I was amazed to discover that not only was I easily making those adjustments but that I was actually enjoying the process. I found myself seeing each difficulty as a creative challenge and undertook to meet each with positive energy I have previously only brought to the limited teaching, consulting and design work I deigned to label ‘real creativity.” This enjoyment encompassed how to get my computer and it’s paraphernalia from my bedroom down to the dining room table so I could be with the family part of the day. Likewise, how to make my bed, coffee, lunch and take a shower safely were more opportunities for delightful engagement, not experiences of being blocked. What a difference this is in my approach to life from all my earlier years!

A major ‘Source’ (more about this to follow) has been my decade-long relationship with friend and mentor, ‘Elder Ed’ Paul with whom I’ve been having weekly Skype video conversations with since we met at a Third Age workshop in Asheville NC in 2003. While I was the official ‘teacher,’ what I was gifted with was a companion 21 years older than I (now 96 to my 75) who has been a primary agent of my moving into this lovely new stage of life!

Among the many life-changing insights Elder Ed has offered me is his simple and profound framework of RIP which means ‘Relaxing Into Participation’ (and is not actually far from ‘Rest In Peace’ if you can dissociate the dying connotations). RIP is Ed’s code for giving up control and surrendering into the flow of ‘Now.’ When we do this (as most spiritual traditions have also suggested), we must begin by recognizing any definition of ‘control’ that includes the notion of somehow ‘being in charge’ of life is flawed – it simply is not a component of human capability. Yes, on the ego level we love to believe we can grab the reins of life and run the show, but this is just non-sense. Nothing makes this clearer than aging, and, for that reason, accepting and aligning with the getting older process can be truly a great gift.

And the key to this is not resisting our natural flow of reality, but opening to and embracing it. This is what Ed means by ‘relaxing into participation,’ and, when we mature into this ability, whole universes of possibility we could not even glimpse previously unfold before us. Ed calls these our ‘Sources,’ and he emphasizes the importance of their paradoxical multiplicity as advisors and guides. One way he does this is to reject the limited human notion of ‘a right way’ insisting that reality, in our very limited perception, is usually seen as presenting EITHER/OR contradictions when, in fact, seen correctly, our Sources are always offering us BOTH/AND opportunities. But we have to give up our cherished rational and linear logic to recognize those possibilities.

Where most of the Second and even Third Age world is stuck is in the impossibility of RIP with the realities of BOTH/AND paradoxes – the deeply imprinted belief that there is always a ‘best’ or ‘right way’ to be found, and the work of life is to seek externally until we have found ‘IT.’ Of course, when we think we have, our ‘right way’ makes all other possibilities ‘wrong’ and ‘evil’ so we must use our ‘rightness’ to oppose them all. This, Ed makes very clear, is the fundamental problem with the variations of ‘monotheism’ (one version of which calls itself ‘atheism’) that have gone about murdering one another for thousands of years.

So, as weird as it may at first seem, Ed’s framework is much closer to the ‘polytheism’ that conceives of a ‘panoply’ of gods – ‘Wisdom Sources’ – we can consult and learn from. In other words, by ‘relaxing into participation’ Ed is showing us how to truly reach beyond our limited rational ability to see and know.

If the non-rationality of this seems too far-fetched, just imagine, now that you know there are no ‘right ways,’ taking on the belief that ‘all paths lead to the mountain top’ only to immediately realize you’ve just moved from an old to a new ‘right way.’ As quantum physics has made abundantly clear, paradoxical reality exists beyond human rationality’s ability to comprehend it.

Now onto another of the non-rational Sources Elder Ed’s mentoring has opened me to – the marvelous storyteller Rachel Naomi Remen. In ‘ENDBEGINNINGS’ she shares this learning for her earlier life…


   “I was 35 years old before I understood that there is no ending without a beginning. That beginnings and endings are and will be always right up against each other. Nothing ever ends without something else beginning or begins without something else ending. Perhaps this would be easier to remember if we had a word for it. Something like ‘endbegin,’ or ‘beginend.’

   “For a long time I never noticed the beginnings. That was one of the first things that changed for me when I entered the Institute for the Study of Humanistic Medicine, the Millers’ research program at Esalen. At that time, I was just learning how to make jewelry and had cast a silver ring. The design was the head of a woman whose long hair, entangled with stars, wound around your finger and formed the ring shank. Technically, it had been difficult to make and I was proud of the design. I finished it in time to wear to one of the first weekend sessions at Esalen.

   “The ring attracted a great deal of admiration and attention. At that time many craftsmen were in residence at Esalen, and several suggested that I drive back up the coast a few miles and show it to the jeweler at a gallery we had passed next to the road.

   “It was about to rain, but I made the trip anyway and had a wonderful afternoon. The jeweler, a gentle man and a gifted artist, had offered me tea and we spent an hour or so talking about beauty and the ways in which art reminds people of the soul. Heady conversation for a young academic physician. In the end, I left my ring with him so that he could recast it and sell it to others. I drove back down Route 1 with difficulty. Some serious rain had begun and the wind was strong enough to push my car a little on the road.

   “During the night, a wild and violent storm, the last of a long series of winter storms, hit the coast. At breakfast, without electricity and heat, I was shocked to hear that we were isolated. A stretch of Route 1 north of Esalen had fallen into the ocean. We would have to drive many miles south and go inland in order to go north to get back to San Francisco.

   “The gallery where I had left my ring had stood next to the stretch of road that had washed into the Pacific. The building was gone and my ring with it.

   “Through my numbness, I could hear several inner voices commenting on my loss. The loudest was my father’s saying, ‘This never would’ve happened if you hadn’t allowed a total stranger to exploit you and make a profit from your design. How stupid can you be, and you a doctor?’ And my mother: ‘You are so careless! You can never be trusted with anything valuable. You always forget things and lose things.’ Mixed in was the voice of a very young part of myself that kept looking at the place on my hand where the ring had been yesterday and saying, ‘Where is it? It was right here.’

   “In anguish, I went to the edge of the cliffs and stood looking down at the Pacific, still wild from yesterday’s storm. Down there somewhere was my ring. As I watched the ocean hammer the cliffs, it began to occur to me that there was something rather natural, even inevitable, about what had happened. Pieces of the land had been falling into the ocean for millions of years. Perhaps all those familiar blaming voices were wrong. There was nothing at all personal and it, just some larger process at work.

   “I looked at the place on my finger again. This time it really was an empty space. And silent. It was a big. For the first time I faced a loss with a sense of curiosity.

   “What would come to fill up this space? Would I make another ring? Or would I find another ring in a secondhand shop, or even another country? Perhaps someday someone I had not even met would give me a ring because he loved me.

   “I was 35 years old and I had never trusted life before. I had never allowed any empty spaces. Like my family, I had believed that that empty spaces remained empty. Life had been about hanging on to what you had and medical training had only reinforced the avoidance of loss at all costs. Anything I had ever let go of had claw marks on it. Yet this empty space had become different. It held all the excitement and anticipation of a wrapped Christmas present.”  (From Kitchen Table Wisdom)


Thank you so much, Rachel Naomi Remen, for this and your many other stories in Kitchen Table Wisdom. If readers of these Musings would like to know more about Rachel, please go to

I was going to go on to share other Sources that have been offering wisdom to me recently, but this is more than enough for one set of Musings. I hope my sharing of Ed’s RIP/Sources framework is of value to you; I have taken some years to allow myself the experience that’s enabled me to confirm its practicality.

And there are enough examples of Sources’ gifts in these articles that follow – it has been effortless on my part for them become an extension of my own learnings. May you find them as inspirational and timely as I have…

 2.  MOST HAVE NO IDEA WHAT MARTIN LUTHER KING ACTUALLY DID – This piece gave me a much more profound understanding of the incredible difference King made to African Americans who lived in the South…

3.  AN UNSUNG HERO OF CIVIL RIGHTS is the story of conservative white Republican Congressman William Moore McCulloch without whom the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have become law…  

4.  ALONE, YET NOT ALONE shares David Brooks’ insight into the compatibility of spirituality and paradox as well as introducing a new singer/philosopher…

5.  A ZURICH 17-YEAR OLD’S GRATITUDE/THANKFULNESS PROJECT offers simple glimpses of Brother David Stendl-Rast’s own growth in the practice of gratitude…

6.  HOUSE PROUD: FREEDOM IN 704 SQUARE FEET gives a perfect example of attending to ‘what we give our life’s time to’…

7.  THIS MONTH’S LINKS – The biggest surprise to me was the ‘bird’s view of the world’…

Until February, much love, FW




This will be a very short diary. It will not contain any links or any scholarly references. It is about a very narrow topic, from a very personal, subjective perspective.

The topic at hand is what Martin Luther King actually did, what it was that he actually accomplished.

What most people who reference Dr. King seem not to know is how Dr. King actually changed the subjective experience of life in the United States for African Americans. And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general. His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.

I remember that many years ago, when I was a smartass home from first year of college, I was standing in the kitchen arguing with my father. My head was full of newly discovered political ideologies and black nationalism, and I had just read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, probably for the second time.

A bit of context. My father was from a background, which if we were talking about Europe or Latin America, we would call, “peasant” origin, although he had risen solidly into the working-middle class. He was from rural Virginia and his parents had been tobacco farmers. I spent two weeks or so every summer on the farm of my grandmother and step-grandfather. They had no running water, no gas, a wood burning stove, no bathtubs or toilets but an outhouse, potbelly stoves for heat in the winter, a giant wood pile, a smoke house where hams and bacon hung, chickens, pigs, semi wild housecats that lived outdoors, no tractor or car, but an old plow horse and plows and other horse drawn implements, and electricity only after I was about 8 years old. The area did not have high schools for blacks and my father went as far as the seventh grade in a one room schoolhouse. All four of his grandparents, whom he had known as a child, had been born slaves. It was mainly because of World War II and urbanization that my father left that life.

They lived in a valley or hollow or “holler” in which all the landowners and tenants were black. In the morning if you wanted to talk to cousin Taft, you would walk down to behind the outhouse and yell across the valley, “Heeeyyyy Taaaaft,” and you could see him far, far in the distance, come out of his cabin and yell back.

On the one hand, this was a pleasant situation because they lived in isolation from white people. On the other hand, they did have to leave the valley to go to town where all the rigid rules of Jim Crow applied. By the time I was little, my people had been in this country for six generations (going back, according to oral rendering of our genealogy, to Africa Jones and Mama Suki), much more under slavery than under freedom, and all of it under some form of racial terrorism, which had inculcated many humiliating behavior patterns.

Anyway, that’s background. I think we were kind of typical as African Americans in the pre-civil rights era went.

So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X’s message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn’t that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn’t accomplished anything as Dr. King had.

I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his “I have a dream speech.”

Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, “he marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.

At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”

Please let this sink in and and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.

I’m guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing The Help, may not understand what this was all about. But living in the south (and in parts of the midwest and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.

It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of “assault,” which could be anything from rape to not taking off one’s hat, to “reckless eyeballing.”

This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father’s memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady.

This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.

I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparents’ vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self-educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.

This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.

If you didn’t get taught such things, let alone experience them, I caution you against invoking the memory of Dr. King as though he belongs exclusively to you and not primarily to African Americans.

The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn’t do it alone.

(Of all the other civil rights leaders who helped Dr. King end this reign of terror, I think the most under appreciated is James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality and was a leader of nonviolent resistance, and taught the practices of nonviolent resistance.)

So what did they do?

They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.

They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn’t that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.

And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn’t that bad.

Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?

These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.

That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another. This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.

Please let this sink in. It wasn’t marches or speeches. It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.

So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don’t tell me that Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you’re not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid. So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one. Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.




This year America will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, a candidate for the greatest legislative accomplishment of the last century. We will recall the presidents who launched (J.F.K.) and landed (L.B.J.) this profound if incomplete attempt to repair the damage racism had done to our democracy and our humanity. We will esteem the leaders and martyrs of the movement that forced the issue onto our national conscience, including the man we honor on this holiday. We will recall, too, the Southern Democrats who stood — and stalled — in defense of segregation, and the Republicans who later capitalized on the outcome with a cynical appeal to white resentment. We will lament the current attempts by several states, with the Supreme Court’s blessing, to roll back the basic franchise promised in the Civil Rights Act (and reinforced by the Voting Rights Act the following year). And we will probably invoke the legacy of this great law many times as we debate the status of millions of undocumented residents and the rights of gay Americans.

Somewhere in all this worthy commemoration we should pause to pay homage to a conservative white Republican named William Moore McCulloch. Never heard of him? Neither had I. But there is a good case to be made that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have become law without him. And there is a very good case to be made that Washington desperately needs his example today.

McCulloch was a congressman from a rural, conservative district in west central Ohio. He was frugal with the taxpayers’ money, favored allowing prayer in schools and keeping the federal government out of them, voted against foreign aid and gun control. These views were sufficiently in sync with his constituents that voters re-elected him 12 times.

With a district that was 2.7 percent black, he had no political incentive to stick his neck out on something as contentious as civil rights. But McCulloch was descended from abolitionists, and had been appalled by his exposure to Jim Crow when he worked as a young lawyer in Florida. This fortified in him a strong belief that the blessings of the Constitution were not meant exclusively for white men, and that it was the highest duty of the federal government to secure those blessings for all.

Moreover — quaint as this may seem today — he believed that principles were not things to be surrendered to polls and lobbyists and that clamorous mob called “the base.” On the wall of his district office in Piqua, Ohio, McCulloch displayed a framed excerpt from Edmund Burke’s message to the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The Kennedy and Johnson administrations knew they would need a large contingent of Republicans to get the civil rights bill past the segregationist Southern Democrats who held the commanding heights on Capitol Hill. And so they sent an emissary to McCulloch, who was the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, and enlisted him as a partner. He agreed to an active collaboration with the Democratic White House, an alliance hard to imagine today and even then viewed by some in his party as bordering on treason. He had two conditions. First, if McCulloch helped get a strong bill through the House, he insisted the president would not allow it to be weakened in the Senate, where the oligarchy of Southern Democrats had successfully filibustered past civil rights measures until they were rendered toothless. Second, McCulloch wanted assurances that Republicans would share the credit for passage.

McCulloch’s story is rescued from obscurity in Todd Purdum’s forthcoming account of the great battle, “An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” Purdum, a former New York Times colleague who now writes for Vanity Fair and Politico, has composed a suspenseful legislative procedural that is a synthesis of history and fresh reporting. His account of the Civil Rights Act is rich in characters, including other Republicans instrumental in passing the landmark bill, like Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Representative Charles Halleck of Indiana, the Republican leader in the House. (Those were the days when “party of Lincoln” actually meant something.) But Purdum has a particular affection for Bill McCulloch, who became, as one legislative aide put it, “the conscience of the bill.” McCulloch assured the bill was the toughest and most enforceable that could muster a majority, and he stiffened the spines of President Johnson and his attorney general, Robert Kennedy, when the opposition got tough. The Southerners’ filibuster dragged on for 57 days but was ended without major concessions, the first time supporters had ever broken a filibuster on a civil rights bill.

The final version outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations. It empowered the attorney general to bring suit to desegregate public schools. It prohibited discrimination in hiring, and let victims of such discrimination seek redress in the courts. And it expanded protection of the right to vote, which would be greatly strengthened the following year. (Yes, McCulloch was a champion of the Voting Rights Act, too.) In the end, the Civil Rights Act passed with a larger percentage of Republicans in support than Democrats.

Among the documents found in McCulloch’s papers years after his death was a handwritten and unusually heartfelt letter from the former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, who wrote: “Your integrity under such pressures is what makes our political system worth fighting for and dying for. Please forgive the emotional tone of this letter — but I want you to know how much your example means to me. It is a light of hope in an often dark world, and one I shall raise my children on as they grow older.”

I wonder if current Republican congressional representatives would laud Rep. McCulloch while continuing business as usual.

It is political writ in today’s Washington that you can be a person of conviction or a compromiser, but not both. McCulloch believed that principles and pragmatism were not only compatible, but that the combination was the bedrock of representative democracy.

“The function of Congress,” he explained, in a farewell speech to House colleagues on his retirement, “is not to convert the will of the majority of the people into law; rather its function is to hammer out on the anvil of public debate a compromise between polar positions acceptable to a majority.” In contrast to the direct democracy of a town meeting, “It is less clear that there is a losing side.”

“Anyone, of course, can introduce grandiose legislative schemes,” he noted on another occasion. “But reaching for the sky, rather than aiming for the possible, is a form of showmanship we don’t wish to engage in. Reality is what we live by and accomplishment is what we seek. For only in compromise, moderation and understanding are we able to fashion our society into a cohesive and durable structure.”

You would be hard pressed to find a McCulloch in today’s Congress of zero-sum partisans and base-whipped invertebrates. Lawmakers now, as President Kennedy said of purists who favored a civil rights bill that was maximalist but unwinnable, “would rather have an issue than a bill.” The handful of surviving legislators in the McCulloch mold seem to be retiring. There are members of the ruling House majority who occasionally show signs of wanting to make law rather than make bumper-sticker slogans, but they are too often beaten back into line. In that category we can count the man who now represents McCulloch’s hometown of Piqua, Ohio: John Andrew Boehner.

In the House of Representatives there is an imposing two-story amphitheater called the National Statuary Hall, to which each state may contribute two marble or bronze likenesses of favorite historical figures. Ohio is represented by President James A. Garfield and William Allen, a former senator and governor known as a champion of westward expansion. Allen was also, as it happens, a champion of slavery, and a few years ago the state began a campaign to replace him. The names of 10 Ohioans were put to voters in a statewide ballot. Bill McCulloch came in fourth, after Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Jesse Owens. I can’t argue with the result, but in this year when our commitment to equality is both remembered and tested, isn’t it nice to imagine the message a statue of Bill McCulloch would have sent?




There is a strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young. When secular or mostly secular people are asked by researchers to give their impression of the devoutly faithful, whether Jewish, Christian or other, the words that come up commonly include “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned” and “out of touch.”

It’s not surprising. There is a yawning gap between the way many believers experience faith and the way that faith is presented to the world.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described one experience of faith in his book “God in Search of Man”: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. …To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And yet Heschel understood that the faith expressed by many, even many who are inwardly conflicted, is often dull, oppressive and insipid — a religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.”

There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.

And yet there is a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.

For example, Audrey Assad is a Catholic songwriter with a crystalline voice and a sober intensity to her stage presence. (You can see her perform her song “I Shall Not Want” on YouTube.) She writes the sort of emotionally drenched music that helps people who are in crisis. A surprising number of women tell her they listened to her music while in labor.

She had an idyllic childhood in a Protestant sect prone to black-or-white dichotomies. But when she was in her 20s, life’s tragedies and complexities inevitably mounted, and she experienced a gradual erosion of certainty.

She began reading her way through the books on the Barnes & Noble Great Books shelf, trying to cover the ones she missed by not going to college. She loved George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” and was taken by Tolstoy. “He didn’t have an easy time encountering himself,” she says, sympathetically. “I was reading my way from darkness into paradox.”

She also began reading theology. She’d never read anything written before 1835. She went back to Augustine (whose phrases show up in her lyrics) and the early church fathers. Denominationally, she went backward in time. She became Baptist, then Presbyterian, then Catholic: “I was ready to be an atheist. I was going to be a Catholic or an atheist. “

She came to feel the legacy of millions of people who had struggled with the same feelings for thousands of years. “I still have routine brushes with agnosticism,” she says. “I still brush against the feeling that I don’t believe any of this, but the church always brings me back. …I don’t think Jesus wants to brush away the paradoxes and mysteries.”

Her lyrics dwell in the parts of Christianity she doesn’t understand. “I don’t want people to think I’ve had an easy time.” She still fights the tendency to go to extremes. “If I’d have been an atheist I’d have been the most obnoxious, Dawkins-loving atheist. I wouldn’t have been like Christopher Hitchens.”

Her life, like all lives, is unexpected, complex and unique. Her music provides a clearer outward display of how many inwardly experience God.

If you are a secular person curious about how believers experience their faith, you might start with Augustine’s famous passage “What do I love when I love my God,” and especially the way his experience is in the world but then mysteriously surpasses the world:

“It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”




RAFAEL: “I am 17 years old and I am doing a major school project on gratitude/thankfulness. As Sir John Templeton asked: ‘How can we get six billion people around the world to practice gratitude?’ I want to create a training program at my school. For my project it would be amazing, if you could answer the following questions for me.” Rafael Ruch, Zurich, Switzerland

RR: “What are you grateful/thankful for in the last year (2013)?”

BD: “On a personal level, I am grateful that my health held out, in spite of my old age (87), that I was able to write and travel and lecture and spend time with good friends.”

RR: “What are you grateful/thankful for in general/in your life?”

BD: “Although I am not always as mindful of it as I would like to be, I am grateful for every single moment, because every moment offers me a new opportunity as a completely free gift. Specifically, I am grateful for the many opportunities to enjoy life through all my senses and to share this joy with others.”

RR: “How does gratitude affect you/your state of being?”

BD: “Whenever I am grateful, I feel more joyful, more awake, and energized in mind and body: I feel ‘in tune with Life.’”

RR: “Have there been life-changing events/moments/situations in your life, which you are thankful for?”

BD: “Several times in my life I was in immediate danger of death (almost being hit by a train at an open train-crossing, or facing an enemy machine-gun pointing directly at me from a few feet away, or having no food and thinking that I might die from starvation). At such moments I learned to appreciate life and live gratefully.”

BD: “My life was also changed by discovering a simple method for grateful living: ‘Stop, Look, Go!’ ‘Stop,’ so as not to rush past the opportunity of the moment; ‘Look,’ for the given opportunity; and ‘Go!’ meaning ‘make something of this given opportunity here and now!’”

RR: “Thank you very much for your time! With kind regards and respect, Rafael”





Early in their marriage, Lily Copenagle and Jamie Kennel began crafting a plan for living, scribbling house designs and lists of must-haves on notepads and paper napkins.

The idea was simple. They would create a home that was big enough for the two of them, but small enough so that it would be easy to maintain, environmentally responsible and inexpensive to operate. And that would allow them to free up their time and funds for intellectual and recreational pursuits. Own less, live more: It sounds like a platitude, but it became their strategy.

“We never liked furnishing or cleaning or taking care of things we really didn’t need,” said Ms. Copenagle, 40, who has degrees in physics and cell biology and is associate dean of students at Reed College in Portland, Ore., where her job involves helping students stay, and succeed, in college.

As her husband said, “There’s so much more personal freedom in going smaller.”

Mr. Kennel, 38, is the director of a Portland paramedics program who plans to pursue a doctorate in education or the behavioral sciences, and is particularly interested in how small teams of emergency medical technicians and others work together in a crisis, often in tight quarters. Ms. Copenagle said, “Jamie sees people on the worst day of their life, medically, and I see them at their toughest academic moment.”

The couple married eight years ago, after they had been dating for a year, in a characteristically small ceremony — it was just the two of them — while on vacation in Nicaragua. Once they returned to Portland, they gave a party so friends and family wouldn’t disown them. And soon after, they began making lists.

Mr. Kennel, who is 6-foot-1, wanted a place that did not have the cramped rooms and low-slung doorways of the older houses they had been living in, so he wouldn’t have to remember to duck his head whenever he walked through a door.

Ms. Copenagle wanted a space that was small enough to vacuum completely in five minutes, within cord’s reach of a single outlet, so there wouldn’t have to be any unplugging and replugging of the vacuum cleaner.

And stairs were out of the question because Sirena, one of their beloved rescue dogs, is 14 and fragile; they also realized that as young and agile as they are now, they might be in a similar situation one day.

After they had settled on a neighborhood in the northern part of the city, they bought a decrepit 1950s house on a deep lot for $190,000 and tore it down, being careful to donate or repurpose anything reusable. What they threw away filled just one Dumpster.

Their neighbors were concerned about what might rise in place of the old home: a McMansion, multiple townhouses or some other hideous anomaly among the area’s modest bungalows. No one imagined that the couple would put up a tidy little house of barely more than 700 square feet — 704, to be exact — that had a vaulted green roof planted with native flora and a friendly 1960s vibe.

“My mother likes to joke that we took a perfectly good two-bedroom house and put up a room,” Ms. Copenagle said.

Mr. Kennel’s family could not fathom it either, he said: “It doesn’t fit their societal picture of success, generally. We’re doing well, so why aren’t we demonstrating that through our house?”

Even the architects they interviewed had balked at the idea, Ms. Copenagle said. “They kept telling us, ‘You really don’t want this.’ ”

After all, while living small has its share of vocal advocates, it is still underrepresented in the American housing market. In 2012, the average home built in the United States was roughly 2,500 square feet.

But this wasn’t about status or money.

“We can certainly afford a bigger place with a higher price tag,” Ms. Copenagle said. “We just don’t want it.”

So they persevered, commissioning blueprints for a design they came up with themselves, filing for permits and hiring a general contractor. Eventually, though, “it dawned on us that we were on site all the time,” Ms. Copenagle said. “And our general contractor was never here.”

Once the framing was complete, they decided to get rid of the contractor and finish most of the work themselves. It was another way to save money — and besides, “we enjoyed doing the construction work,” Ms. Copenagle said.

In all, the house, which was completed in 2012, cost about $135,000 to build, including materials and labor. (Their own labor, which isn’t part of that figure, they valued at $50,000.) Next time, they said, they will forgo general contractors, architects and real estate agents, which added another $18,000 at the outset.

Those costs were offset by grants of roughly $9,000 that the city awarded them for the green roof, and they get a break on their water bill for managing and reusing storm water with permeable pavers, a rain garden and a 550-gallon rain barrel.

The landscaping also softens the industrial feeling of the exterior and entices passers-by to stop and ring the doorbell, asking questions or offering opinions. The residents do not seem to mind. They are delighted with the way the indoor and outdoor spaces flow together, creating the impression of a more expansive home. And they are proud of their house’s performance in the energy-savings department.

None of this has gone unnoticed by the neighbors. Kim Conrow, 65, who lives next door, marveled: “On weekends, they actually go places and do things. They’re not tied to the projects most of us are tied to. I’m so charmed by the simplicity of it.”

Ms. Conrow admitted, however, that she would never be able to share a closet with her husband the way her neighbors do.

Still, the benefits of that arrangement speak for themselves. In nine months, the mortgage will be paid in full, which will leave Ms. Copenagle and Mr. Kennel with monthly costs of roughly $370 for property taxes, utilities, municipal services and insurance.

That’s good, because they will soon have to pay tuition for Mr. Kennel’s next degree. And Ms. Copenagle has bought a sleeker kayak so she can keep up with her husband as he paddles his stand-up board on the local rivers. Recently, they also bought 20 acres in northeastern Washington, completely off the grid, with incredible views of the Cascade Mountains.

The scribbling on napkins has begun again. This time, the goal is 400 square feet.









To subscribe email with “Subscribe” in the Subject line. Thank you.


To unsubscribe email with “Unsubscribe” in the Subject line. Thank you.


© Copyright 2002-2012, The Center for Third Age Leadership, except where indicated otherwise. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprint only with permission from copyright holder(s). All trademarks are property of their respective owners. All contents provided as is. No express or implied income claims made herein. This newsletter is available by subscription only. We neither use nor endorse the use of spam.

Please feel free to use excerpts from this newsletter as long as you give credit with a link to our page: Thank you!


Newsletter – January 2014 #1











“…I was only fourteen and curiosity overcame me. Turning to the old woman, I asked, ‘What are you looking at?’ … Slowly she turned to me and I could see her face for the first time. It was radiant. In a voice filled with joy she said, ‘Why child, I am looking at the Light.’”



January greetings, dear friends…

So here I am in mid-January after sending you these Non-Musings at the end of December:

   “As 2013 ends, Old Father William is going through some major changes on all levels – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual – and it’s going to take some time to sort out what this month’s Musings will look like. Hopefully, clarity will emerge by mid-January, and, if it doesn’t, I’ll still send along some provocative thoughts and links by others…”

The emotional, intellectual and spiritual changes have been going on for some time, but they were greatly intensified by the combination of a serious sinus/lung infection and bout of gout that together put me completely out of action for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Now I’m very aware that these physical challenges are extremely minor relative to what a number of friends have been going through in the last year – and that I am very, very fortunate in my physical health and well-being. So thanks to those of you who sent me such loving concern, and please let me assure you I am in very good shape for 2014.

This last month has caused me to reflect seriously upon the limitations and impermanence of this body, and these reflections have created reverberating echoes on the emotional, intellectual and spiritual dimensions as well. These echoes have stirred up my psyche substantially, and, while the waters are still a bit murky, clarity is definitely emerging – and I require more time before I can share my learnings as clearly as I want to.

So please regard this as Part 1 of January’s newsletter with Part 2 promised before month’s end. Meanwhile, enjoy these collected thoughts that follow…

2.  LIFE FORCE: SILENCE is one of the stories from RACHEL NAOMI REMEN’s wonderful bestseller, “KITCHEN TABLE WISDOM,” and is an important part of my own re-visioning of my aging process…

3.  THE SMARTEST BOOK ABOUT OUR DIGITAL AGE WAS PUBLISHED IN 1929 and JOSE ORTEGA Y GASSET (through TED GIOIA’s review here) has offered me an entirely new way of seeing the cascade of unexplainable absurdities that keep engulfing the ‘civilized’ world…

4.  MATERIALISM: A SYSTEM THAT EATS US FROM THE INSIDE OUT highlights perhaps the most destructive result of the absurdities described in #3…

5.  HOW TO CLOSE THE GAP BETWEEN US AND THEM is a comprehensive interview with JOSHUA GREEN, author of “MORAL TRIBES” by JILL SUTTIE and actually suggests some viable solutions to mitigating today’s abundance of absurdities…


Until Part 2, much love, FW




  As an adolescent, I had a summer job working as a volunteer companion in a nursing home for the aged. The job began with a two-week intensive training about communicating with the elderly. There seemed to be a great deal to remember and what had begun as a rather heartfelt way to spend a teenage summer quickly became a regimented set of techniques and skills for which I would be evaluated by the nursing staff. By the first day of actual patient contact, I was very anxious.

  My first assignment was to visit with a ninety-six-year-old woman who had not spoken for more than a year. A psychiatrist had diagnosed her as having senile dementia, but she had not responded to medication. The nurses doubted that she would talk to me, but hoped I could engage her in a mutual activity. I was given a large basket filled with glass beads of every imaginable size and color. We would string beads together. I was to report back to the nursing station in an hour.

  I did not want to see this patient. Her great age frightened me and the words “senile dementia” suggested that not only was she older than by far anyone I had ever met, she was crazy, too. Filled with foreboding, I knocked on the closed door of her room. There was no answer. Opening the door, I found myself in a small room lit by a single window which faced the morning sun. Two chairs had been placed in front of the window; in one sat a very old lady, looking out. The other was empty. I stood just inside the door for a time, but she didn’t not acknowledge my presence in any way. Uncertain of what to do next, I went to the empty chair and sat down, the basket of beads on my lap. She did not seem to notice that I had come.

  For a while I tried to find some way to open a conversation. I was painfully shy at this time, which was one of the reasons my parents had suggested I take this job, and I would have had a hard time even in less difficult circumstances. The silence in the room was absolute. Somehow, it almost seemed rude to speak, yet I desperately wanted to succeed at my task. I considered and discarded all the ways of making conversation suggested in the training. None of them seemed possible. The old woman continued to look toward the window, her face half hidden from me, barely breathing. Finally I simply gave up and sat with the basket of beads in my lap for the full hour. It was quite peaceful.

“The silence was broken at last by the little bell which signified the end of the morning activity. Taking hold of the basket again, I prepared to leave. But I was only fourteen and curiosity overcame me. Turning to the old woman, I asked, ‘What are you looking at?’ … Slowly she turned to me and I could see her face for the first time. It was radiant. In a voice filled with joy she said, ‘Why child, I am looking at the Light.’

Many years later as a pediatrician, I would watch newborns look at the light with that same rapt expression, almost as if they were listening for something.

…A ninety-six-year old woman may stop speaking because arteriosclerosis has damaged her brain, or she has become psychotic and she is no longer able to speak. But she may also have withdrawn into a space between the worlds, to contemplate what is next, to spread her sails and patiently wait to catch the light.”





I first read José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses more than thirty years ago. I still remember how disappointed I was by this cantankerous book. I’d read other works by Ortega (1883-1955), and been impressed by the Spanish philosopher’s intelligence and insight. But this 1929 study of the modern world, his most famous book, struck me as hopelessly nostalgic and elitist.

Yet I recently read The Revolt of the Masses again, and with a completely different response. The same ideas I dismissed as old-fashioned and out-of-date back in the 20th century now reveal an uncanny ability to explain the most peculiar happenings of the digital age.

Are you, like me, puzzled to learn that Popular Science magazine recently shut down comments on its website, declaring that they were bad for science? Are you amazed, like me, that Duck Dynasty is the most-watched nonfiction cable show in TV history? Are you dismayed, like me, that crappy Hollywood films about comic book heroes and defunct TV shows have taken over every movie theater? Are you depressed, like me, that symphony orchestras are declaring bankruptcy, but Justin Bieber earned $58 million last year?

If so, you need to read The Revolt of the Masses. You’ve got questions. Ortega’s got answers.

First, let me tell you what you won’t find in this book. Despite a title that promises political analysis, The Revolt of the Masses has almost nothing to say about conventional party ideologies and alignments. Ortega shows little interest in fascism or capitalism or Marxism, and this troubled me when I first read the book. (Although, in retrospect, the philosopher’s passing comments on these matters proved remarkably prescient—for example his smug dismissal of Russian communism as destined to failure in the West, and his prediction of the rise of a European union.) Above all, he hardly acknowledges the existence of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in political debates.

Ortega’s brilliant insight came in understanding that the battle between ‘up’ and ‘down’ could be as important in spurring social and cultural change as the conflict between ‘left’ and ‘right’. This is not an economic distinction in Ortega’s mind. The new conflict, he insists, is not between “hierarchically superior and inferior classes…. upper classes or lower classes.” A millionaire could be a member of the masses, according to Ortega’s surprising schema. And a pauper might represent the elite.

The key driver of change, as Ortega sees it, comes from a shocking attitude characteristic of the modern age—or, at least, Ortega was shocked. Put simply, the masses hate experts. If forced to choose between the advice of the learned and the vague impressions of other people just like themselves, the masses invariably turn to the latter. The upper elite still try to pronounce judgments and lead, but fewer and fewer of those down below pay attention.

He understands that the rise of new technological tools gives a global scope to the unformed opinions of people who, in a previous era, would have only focused on what was nearby and familiar.

Above all, the favorite source of wisdom for the masses, in Ortega’s schema, is their own strident opinions. “Why should he listen, when he has all the answers, everything he needs to know?” Ortega writes. “It is no longer the season to listen, but on the contrary, a time to pass judgment, to pronounce sentence, to issue proclamations.”

Ortega couldn’t have foreseen digital age culture, but he is describing it with precision. He would recognize the angry, assertive tone of comments on web articles as the exact same tendency he identified in 1929. He would understand why Yelp reviews have more influence than the considered judgments of restaurant reviewers. He would know why Amazon customer comments have more clout than critics in The New Yorker. He would attend an angry town hall meeting or listen to talk radio, and recognize the same tendencies he described in his book.

Recently I had dinner with a friend who is affluent, educated, and a noted wine connoisseur. We were talking about wine critic Robert Parker and other experts, and my friend asserted that he now relies more on wine advice from websites where anyone can post their evaluations of different vintages. And if the mass mentality has taken over wine-tasting, what can we expect from film reviews or rock criticism?

Of course, this rise of mass opinion comes at a cost. For example, music criticism is turning into lifestyle reporting. Even specialist magazines avoid dealing with any technical descriptions of what a performer is doing, and I have a hunch that the less critics know about the structure of music, the more likely they are to succeed today. This same tendency, outlined with precision by Ortega back in 1929, can be seen in numerous other fields where experts once reigned, but have now been replaced by the opinions of the masses.

Strange to say, not all kinds of expertise are ignored nowadays. The same people who denounce expert opinion about movies or music will praise a skilled plumber or car mechanic. The value of blue-collar expertise is accepted without question. The same people who get angry when I make judgments about the skill level of a pianist, would never question my decision to pay more to hire a superior piano tuner. This is a peculiar state of affairs, but very much aligned with the “revolt of the masses.”

Ortega also predicted the close connection between advancing technologies and these new rude attitudes. He devotes an entire chapter to the co-existence of “primitivism and technology.” He understands that the rise of new technological tools gives a global scope to the unformed opinions of people who, in a previous era, would have only focused on what was nearby and familiar. Above all, he marvels at the fact that the “disdain for science as such is displayed with greatest impunity by the technicians themselves.” Or put differently, skill in manipulating a technology (say, Instagram or the iPhone, in our day) has nothing in common with a zeal for facts and empirical evidence. That shocked Ortega, but we encounter it daily on in the web.

I wish Ortega were around nowadays to comment on digital age culture. At one point in The Revolt of the Masses, he complains about a woman who told him “I can’t stand a dance to which less than 800 people have been invited.” So how would the Spanish philosopher respond to the crowd mentality that seeks out viral videos with a hundred million views? How would he evaluate TV reality shows in which the best singers or dancers are determined by the verdict of the masses? What would he think of political judgments shared by the millions in the form of 140-or-fewer-characters tweets?

I can’t do justice to all of this book’s riches in a short article. On almost every page, Ortega addresses some issue that still resonates today—for example, the rise of consumerism; or the possibility for barbarism to flourish in tandem with technology; or the unbalanced specialization which favors science over the humanities; or (in his words) “the loss of prestige of legislative assemblies.” You recognize all of those hot topics, don’t you?

Okay, we encounter these dysfunctional tendencies every day, but Ortega forces us to see them with a different perspective—from the standpoint of ‘up’ versus ‘down’. Indeed, his book is more valuable for the speculations it will spur in a current-day reader than in the specific situations Ortega addresses. But isn’t that always the measure of a timeless thinker?




Buying more stuff is associated with depression, anxiety and broken relationships. It is socially destructive and self-destructive

Owning more doesn’t bring happiness: ‘the material pursuit of self-esteem reduces self-esteem.’

That they are crass, brash and trashy goes without saying. But there is something in the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram (and highlighted by the Guardian last week) that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches, a youth posing in front of his helicopter, endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools and spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse: something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.

The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl’s head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed. It’s captioned “shoppy shoppy” and “#goldrush”, but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She’s alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.

Perhaps I’m projecting my prejudices. But an impressive body of psychological research seems to support these feelings. It suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project“, is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.

In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.

In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country’s economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.

These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.

Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.

A third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.

The two varieties of materialism that have this effect – using possessions as a yardstick of success and seeking happiness through acquisition – are the varieties that seem to be on display on Rich Kids of Instagram. It was only after reading this paper that I understood why those photos distressed me: they look like a kind of social self-mutilation.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons an economic model based on perpetual growth continues on its own terms to succeed, though it may leave a trail of unpayable debts, mental illness and smashed relationships. Social atomisation may be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an unbeatable programme for atomisation.

Materialism forces us into comparison with the possessions of others, a race both cruelly illustrated and crudely propelled by that toxic website. There is no end to it. If you have four Rolexes while another has five, you are a Rolex short of contentment. The material pursuit of self-esteem reduces your self-esteem.

I should emphasise that this is not about differences between rich and poor: the poor can be as susceptible to materialism as the rich. It is a general social affliction, visited upon us by government policy, corporate strategy, the collapse of communities and civic life, and our acquiescence in a system that is eating us from the inside out.

This is the dreadful mistake we are making: allowing ourselves to believe that having more money and more stuff enhances our wellbeing, a belief possessed not only by those poor deluded people in the pictures, but by almost every member of almost every government. Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.

 A fully referenced version of this article can be found at





How can one group of people be convinced that abortion is morally wrong, while another sees abortion as a woman’s right to choose? Why do Republicans tend to favor the death penalty as morally just, while many Democrats find it morally repugnant? And why do we keep fighting about these and other “moral” issues?

To help answer that, I spoke with Joshua Greene, the John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Moral Cognitions Lab at Harvard University. He and his colleagues study the psychological processes and neural systems that are involved in making moral choices.

Greene’s new book, “Moral Tribes,” describes this research, along with other insights into how psychology shapes our moral thinking. The book not only helps explain why we humans sometimes find ourselves at odds over moral issues but also suggests how we can use that knowledge to transcend moral conflicts and find solutions to problems that plague our nation and the world.

Greene was recently in Berkeley to discuss his findings at the Society of Experimental Social Psychology conference, where I caught up with him.

Jill Suttie: In your book, you talked about moral decisions that are made within “tribes” as being different than those that are made between tribes. How so?

Joshua Greene: The fundamental moral problem is one of cooperation, which is getting a pair or a group of people to do what’s best for the group as opposed to what it best for the individual.

An illustration of this, made famous by the ecologist Garrett Hardin, is a tribe of herders who raise sheep on a common pasture. The herders ask themselves, Should I add another animal to my herd?

Well, it makes sense from a selfish perspective for everyone to grow their herd. But if everybody does that, suddenly there are more animals than the pasture can support, and all of them die. That’s the “tragedy of the commons”—individually rational behavior leading to collective ruin.

What’s the solution? Morality. We agree that we’re going to limit our individual herds for the greater good.

This is the type of problem—a Me versus Us problem—that I think humans evolved to solve. We have a suite of emotional capacities that enable us to do that: We have positive emotions that make us want to be cooperative, to care about others’ wellbeing. We have negative feelings that make us want to be cooperative, too—I would feel ashamed or guilty if I were to take too much of the commons for myself. Then we have positive feelings, such as gratitude or admiration, that motivate us to reward others for being cooperative, and negative feelings, such as anger and contempt, that do the same thing. Those social emotions enable us to get along with other people.

But modern moral controversies aren’t about being selfish versus doing good for people in this straightforward way. They’re more complicated.

JS: So how are modern moral controversies different than the “tragedy of the commons?”

JG: To start, imagine a group of herders who are pure communists—they share their pasture and they share their herd, and that’s how they solve the problem: They have everything in common. Now imagine another group of herders who are pure individualists. They say, ‘We’re not going to have a shared pasture. We’re going to divide it up—privatize the pasture—so that we each get our own land and our own herd. And we’re going to respect each other’s property rights.’

These are two different ways of being cooperative—cooperation on different terms. A lot of our political disputes are about individualism versus collectivism: To what extent are we each responsible for ourselves, and to what extent are we all in this together? We see this, for example, in issues such as the health care debate and climate change. The modern moral tragedy is not a simple problem of selfishness versus morality—Me versus Us. It’s different tribes with different moral ideals occupying the same space. It’s Us versus Them—their values versus our values, or their interests versus our interests.

The problem is even more complicated because groups not only have different ideas about how to cooperate; they have different histories, religions, leaders, heroes, and holy books that tell them what’s right. This exacerbates the problem of Us versus Them. Different groups rally around different moral authorities, different “proper nouns” such as the Christian Bible versus the Koran.

So one of the main ideas of the book is that when it comes to everyday morality—being selfish versus being good to other people—your moral intuitions are likely to serve you well. Our moral emotions evolved to solve the Me versus Us problem, the tragedy of the commons. But when it comes to Us versus Them, what I call the “tragedy of the commonsense morality,” then our gut reactions are the problem. And that’s when we need to stop and think and be more reflective.

JS: How can we disengage and reflect when faced with moral dilemmas like the ones that exist between groups?

JG: An important tool is just awareness—understanding that it’s your gut reaction if you judge this way instead of that way, and that the people on the other side have different gut reactions, too.

But awareness isn’t enough. You’ve got your gut reactions and I’ve got mine—but what should we do? What we need is what I call a “meta-morality.” A morality is what allows the individuals within a group to get along, to turn a bunch of separate “Me”s into an Us. A meta-morality, then, performs the same function at a higher level, allowing groups to get along. A meta-morality adjudicates among competing moral systems, just as a first-order moral system adjudicates among competing individuals.

The meta-morality that I favor has historically been known as “utilitarianism,” but that’s a very bad name for it. I prefer to call it “deep pragmatism,” a name that gives a clearer sense of what it’s really about. Deep pragmatism boils down to this: Maximize happiness impartially. Try to make life as happy as possible overall, giving equal weight to everyone’s happiness.

It’s a meta-morality, because it’s a system. Unlike simple rules such as “don’t kill people,” deep pragmatism tells you how to make trade-offs, which is what a meta-morality needs to do. For example, suppose there is a conflict between the individual right to free speech and the rights of other people not to be harmed or offended. A deep pragmatist asks: What are the long-term consequences of allowing this kind of speech? What happens if we restrict it? Which option is most likely to lead to the best results?

JS: Has pure pragmatism ever been applied in the world?

JG: In a sense, this is the dominant framework among policy wonks—trying to estimate costs and benefits. But adding up costs and benefits is, ironically, not necessarily the decision procedure that is likely to produce the best results in all cases.

For one thing, we’re likely to be biased. Imagine standing in a store trying to estimate the costs and benefits of shoplifting. You’re better off just following the commonsense moral rule. But that higher level judgment—the judgment about how to decide—is itself a kind of pragmatic decision.

So part of it is paying attention to costs and benefits, and part of it is knowing when to just go with the simple rule. I think that the people who do this well are the people whom we describe as “principled, but practical.”

JS: It seems that in our society, leaders who are ambiguous about moral deciding—who take in more information before making a decision—are seen as weak rather than morally strong. How can things change if this is the dominant view?

JG: Change has to come from the bottom up. It won’t work to have a bunch of utilitarian policy wonks running things while people’s gut reactions are out of line with what the wonks are doing.

The key, then, is to change the way ordinary people think, and that requires a deeper, scientific understanding of our own minds—“Where are my judgments coming from?” It begins with the science of psychology. We’ve learned that our judgments can be very fickle, sensitive to things that, upon reflection, seem irrelevant—such as the physical distance between ourselves and people we can help—and insensitive to things that are very important, such as the number of people we can help.

JS: So is it always better to use more thoughtful reflection instead of gut reactions when making moral decisions?

JG: My metaphor for thinking about gut reactions and cognitive processes is the two modes we have for taking digital photos. If you’re doing something pretty standard, like taking a picture of a mountain from a mile away in broad daylight, then you can use one of the automatic settings—“landscape mode”—and it will likely turn out well.

But if you want to do something that the designers of your camera did not envision, you need flexibility. You put the camera in manual mode, and you can adjust everything yourself and do exactly what you want.

We can ask, ‘Which is better—the manual mode or the automatic settings?’ And the answer is that neither is better in any absolute sense. Automatic settings are better for most purposes—they are very efficient. But when you’re facing a more challenging problem, then manual mode is better. That’s when you need flexibility, rather than efficiency.

In the same way, the human brain has automatic settings and a manual mode. The automatic settings are our gut reactions, and our manual mode is our ability to stop and think and reason—especially about costs and benefits.

When you’re facing the moral problems of everyday life—“Should I do the thing I agreed to do, even though it’s now no longer convenient?”—there your gut reactions are more likely to be a good guide than rational calculation. But when you’re trying to decide what our policy should be about the death penalty, abortion, international conflicts, global warming—those are not the kinds of problems that our tribal gut reactions were designed to solve. Here we need to step back from our feelings and look at the evidence to figure out what is likely to produce the best results.

JS: We seem so clearly divided on these important questions, so much so that the sides can hardly to talk to each other. What do you suggest?

JG: My book gets into a lot of abstract philosophy and a lot of technical neuroscience, so I deliberately ended the book with commonsense guidelines for dealing with real-world problems

The first rule is that, when it comes to controversial moral issues, you should consult your gut feelings, but you shouldn’t trust them too much. When we have strong emotional disagreements, someone’s gut reactions have to be wrong, and maybe everyone’s are wrong.

An extension of this idea—and a more controversial one—is that we’re unlikely to settle our disagreements by arguing about rights. We talk about rights to make our gut reactions sound more rational. Whatever we feel, we can posit the existence of a right that corresponds to our feelings. So if I feel that it’s wrong to kill a fetus, I say it has a right to live. If I feel that it’s wrong to tell a woman that she can’t terminate her pregnancy, I say she has a right to choose. We have no procedure for figuring out who has which rights or which rights count more. The alternative approach is to focus instead on costs and benefits, and to focus on evidence concerning costs and benefits.

A second rule: Watch out for what I call “biased fairness.” Fairness comes in different forms. For example, paying everyone the same could be fair, but so could giving bonuses for better performance. “Biased fairness” means favoring the version of fairness that suits your selfish interests. It’s not a coincidence that most wealthy people tend to think taxes should be lower, or that people with lower incomes think it’s OK to have higher taxes to pay for more social services. Very rarely do people just come out and say, “I don’t care about other people; I’m just out for me.” Instead we choose the version of fairness that suits us best.

Another key idea is using common currency. If we’re not going to be talking about rights, because rights are really just dressing up our gut reactions, what’s our common currency? We need a common currency of facts, and we need a common currency of values. The currency of facts is science, broadly construed—the search for observable replicable evidence. It’s true that people tend to reject science if it conflicts with their worldview. But everybody appeals to science when it suits them, and no other source of knowledge has that distinction. Creationists would be delighted if, tomorrow, credible scientists were to declare that we’d got it all wrong and that the world is in fact just a few thousand years old. But biologists and geologists don’t appeal to the Pope when he happens to agree with their views. Science is our common ground.

When it comes to values, that’s really where deep pragmatism comes in. Believe what you want, value what you want, but the only way we can systematically make trade-offs, I think, is to appeal to consequences, giving equal weight to everyone’s interests. Some philosophers think there are other ways, but I don’t think they work.

JS: How might you apply this to a real-world dilemma?

JG: Relying on our gut reactions can be very counter-productive. Look at the state of our prisons—horrible, miserable places. You commit a crime, you end up there, you spend all of your time with other criminals. You’re not treated well by the authorities, you’re basically living in a “might makes right” kind of jungle, where justice is often quite arbitrary, sexual violence is rampant, and prisoners feel like they have no control. We send people to prison for 20 years for doing something bad; then when they come out, they’re completely unprepared to do anything productive. For years, all they’ve known is a world of criminals and unsympathetic abuse from authorities above them. This kind of prison system satisfies our taste for retribution—our desire to really stick it to people who break the rules. But in terms of actual results its counter-productive..

Our criminal justice system is very different from most others in the developed world. It’s gut reactions run rampant as opposed to thinking about what is actually going to produce the best results. Obviously, it’s a very complicated policy question, and I wouldn’t say that we should necessarily be “nice” to people who commit serious crimes. But I think that if we focused on achieving good outcomes, rather than satisfying our punitive impulses—what we exalt as “Justice”—we’d all be better off.

JS: What else do you find exciting about your research?

JG: I believe that we’re building something unprecedented in the natural world. Biological evolution is a competitive process. Our basic moral instincts toward other people evolved—not because they are “nice” but because being good to those in your group allows your group to out-compete other groups. And so our goodness evolved as a competitive weapon.

But the amazing thing is that we also have an ability to understand our own thinking. This general ability to understand things didn’t evolve as part of morality. It evolved just to help us solve problems in general. So, combining some basic moral impulses that evolved as a competitive weapon with this capacity to think and reason and understand creates something totally new. We can step outside of our tribal instincts and say, “It’s not just the people in my tribe that matter, everybody matters. And everybody matters equally.” It’s a thought that evolution never wanted us to have.

And it’s not just another biological oddity, like, “Oh, here’s an animal that’s got green spots—gee I’ve never seen that before.” Our evolving global tribe is unlike anything that’s ever evolved before, because it’s not evolving for a competitive purpose. It’s evolving simply because we think it’s good. The idea that our species is breaking free of nature’s ruthless rule—that’s pretty exciting to me. 








To subscribe email with “Subscribe” in the Subject line. Thank you.


To unsubscribe email with “Unsubscribe” in the Subject line. Thank you.


© Copyright 2002-2012, The Center for Third Age Leadership, except where indicated otherwise. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprint only with permission from copyright holder(s). All trademarks are property of their respective owners. All contents provided as is. No express or implied income claims made herein. This newsletter is available by subscription only. We neither use nor endorse the use of spam.

Please feel free to use excerpts from this newsletter as long as you give credit with a link to our page: Thank you!


Newsletter – December 2013






“True wisdom is to be found in the peaceful, for peacefulness is the sign of wisdom.”



December and New Year’s Greetings, Dear Friends…

As 2013 ends, Old Father William is going through some major changes on all levels – physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual – and it’s going to some time to sort out what this month’s Musing will look like. Hopefully, clarity will emerge by mid-January, and, if it doesn’t, I’ll still send along some provocative thoughts and links by others.

Hope you are having fulfilling and even peaceful holidays…

Much love, FW