“The kids are proud!” my husband, Brian, commented, “I told them where you were.” We were vacationing in the Caribbean, and I had been engaged in one of my quirky travel pastimes—buying children’s books and dropping them at a local library. Brian looked pleased with himself, our daughters hugged me, and I squirmed at having been outed.
I was raised on a Bible story in which Jesus is watching Pharisees loudly drop coins into a tithe box at the temple door. Then a poor widow comes along and discretely puts in a mite—a small coin of little value. Jesus says that the widow has given more than any of them, because she gave what little she had while they gave out of their surplus. He also says that the Pharisees will get no reward in heaven; their reward is the attention that they have sought and received. I’m no longer worried about gaining or losing rewards in heaven. But the sense has stuck that public eyes somehow diminish a gift, even if those “public eyes” belong to two small girls.
For several reasons, parents who were raised on similar stories need to push past the discomfort of giving in front of their kids. New research from the University of British Columbia reports that giving makes people happier. In fact, how we spend our money, whether we use it to help others has more effect on happiness than the total in the bank. Other kinds of giving matter, too: time, for example, or knowledge. The important thing is that children learn giving skills.
One time, I sat in my psychology office with a high schooler who had just returned from a Habitat for Humanity trip in Peru. He poured out an exuberant mix of images and ideas. “Where did you get this from?!” I asked him, surprised by his intensity. “How did this stuff come to be a part of who you are?” “From my mother,” he answered immediately
I realized there was a part of his family experience that I didn’t know. He was in my office because his parents had gone through a difficult divorce and each family member was, in his or her own way, struggling. We had been focused on declining grades, behavior problems and conflicts. Pain makes us self absorbed, and he and his sister and parents hadn’t been very focused on the well-being of the world in the months since they had first come in to see me. It was all they could do to muddle their way through the emotional upheaval.
“From your mother,” I repeated. “How so?” “Oh,” he responded, “She used to take us to serve dinners for homeless people, and she raised money for the animal shelter, and we were involved in our neighborhood clean-up. . . .” By the time he finished describing the many ways that his mother had involved him in her service and giving, I had learned an important lesson. Giving was second nature for him, like brushing his teeth. It was part of his normal equilibrium. As soon as he began emerging from the divorce process, it was there waiting, pulling him back into a healthier, happier part of himself.
If we want our children to make their beds, we show them how it’s done, we coach them through it, and we nudge them along. If we want them to be readers, we read to them; we tell them it is important; we read together so that reading becomes part of our bond. If we want them to be kind to animals, we teach them how to pick up a cat and we remind them what it feels like for an unfed pet to be hungry. We talk to animals in peculiar ways, pet them, and invite the children to join us. In all of these we model, explain, and encourage the desired habits and then provide opportunities for supervised practice. But if we want them to be civic minded or charitable, we expect them to pick it up by osmosis.
Let me tell you what happened as a result of my husband exposing my library adventure. Not long afterward, back home, our then six-year-old picked up a book about manatees. She has always been fascinated with marine mammals. In fact, at one point her stated goal in life was to become an Orca whale. This time, she came down stairs crying, saying, “Mommy, I want to send money to the manatees. I don’t want them to be extinct.”
She painstakingly dictated a letter to her aunt in Florida, asking about how to help manatees. She drew pictures of manatees being hit by boats, with a big circle and slash around them. And she set about raising money by pulling weeds, picking up messes, and making a one-box garage sale in which she sold—this is the bonus part—her only Barbie.
When she was still at it two months later, I helped her to sell drinks and brownies at a local parade. By then she had involved our next door neighbor girl and her little sister. A friend of ours dropped by, and as he was leaving, he drew five dollars out of his pocket. “This is for Brynnie’s manatee fund,” he said. “Our boys pulled weeds in our back yard because they wanted to contribute.”
Now, I’ve never really focused before on helping manatees, but I’ll confess, I love it. I get that in-love-with-my-kid feeling whenever I think of her quest. “She’s becoming a regular mooch,” my husband said when he came home from work to find an elaborately decorated ‘Change for Manatees’ box on top of our drier. “No,” I reminded him. “It’s not mooching, it’s fundraising.” My husband hates begging favors as much as I hate the public eye. But if we both have to squirm a bit so that the girls can grow their helping instinct into a giving habit, so be it.
Should I love my country any less?
When we love ourselves truly, securely, we admit our flaws. We acknowledge the dark secrets of our past. And we recognize the even darker possibilities of which we are capable. Yet we see the goodness that coexists with these and embrace with pride our tattered humanity.
When we feel loved absolutely, it is because we are cherished by someone who has seen us when we get up in the morning, stripped of the face we wear in public. Someone who knows that we can smell bad and we think ugly thoughts. Someone who has heard our most guarded secrets. Someone who knows our shame and who sees our beauty. All else feels ultimately fragile or false.
Should I offer my country anything less?
In a land beneath the sea, a small monster slipped quietly into a cave one night and took up residence there. His tentacles were long and his jaws were wide, but the creatures that lived in those parts didn’t know this, for he hid himself in a grey fog through which only he could see.
His cloak of fog looked to the other animals like a shadow passing through the water. In it, he could drift in the currents, like a cloud that drifted across the sun. He could linger among the dark crevices of a sea mount, unseen, or lie low on the ocean floor so that he blended into the sand. But any animal that entered that shadow disappeared.
It took a while for the disappearances to be noticed, for the sea is a place where life feeds life and the small give birth to many so that the large may give birth to few. The monster, at first, being small, ate of the many. So, as his form was hidden within the shadowing fog, his appetite was hidden within the balance of birth and death, and his presence went unsuspected. But as he ate, he grew. And grew. And grew. And as he grew, things began to change.
First plankton grew scarcer, filtered out of the water by the passing fog. Then the anchovies dwindled and the herrings and smelts, and then the crustaceans that anchored themselves to the rock shelves and pinnacles. Then cod and sea bass began to disappear, and salmon, and even sword fish, dolphins and sharks.
Finally a blue whale rounded a point of land and vanished before the eyes of a school of flying gurnard. The gurnard panicked. They scattered, skimming across the surface of the water in every direction, screeching what they had seen, and the animals, large and small, realized, abruptly and undeniably, what they had been ignoring.
Now that their eyes were open, they could see that great areas of the sea bottom lay barren, swept clean by the monster within the fog. The open waters were no longer clouded with schools of fish competing for space. The cliffs and slopes of the sea mounts were void of life.
Alert as they now were, the larger animals might flee the path of the shadow during the day. But the night gave them no warning, no safety. And the small or slow-moving creatures had no escape, night or day. Frightened and troubled, the animals consulted among themselves. Though they had accepted the cycles of birth and death, of growth and loss, they could not resign themselves to this: an appetite that left in its path only barren emptiness.
A council was called of the old and the wise, summoned by the gulls and the albatross who knew that the end of life in the sea would be their own end. The elders came from far and near; the small were carried across the waters on the backs of the large. With the gray fog sweeping ever broader swaths of ocean, not all arrived, but the council convened at last in clear waters beneath a tropical sun.
Creatures of every shape and color, creatures with no shape but the shape given them by the movement of the waters, creatures with no color save the color given them by the reflections of the sunlight, all of these brought to the council the wisdom of their kind and their sense of a shared fate. Whales stood guard all around, though they could do little to protect the gathering but signal danger by their own disappearance.
Among the most ancient of the elders was the nautilus, of whom it was said that he stored within his shell all of the memory of his kind from the beginning of time. He had not spoken in a hundred years, perhaps longer. Perhaps far longer. Yet he was borne to the council in the mouth of a great eel, who, in this time of desperation, had retrieved him from the depths in which he slept.
The nautilus lay, unmoving, for three days while the elders of all the creatures of the sea debated the situation. Attack, proposed some, but they could find no means. Escape, said some, but they could find no route. Hide, said some, but they could find no sanctuary. Finally, when all seemed lost, they turned to the nautilus, and he answered them.
“None of us alone could defeat this enemy,” he said. “Even together, our strength would fail. Yet the monster has his weakness: I hear that he has yet to refuse any living creature that comes within his reach. Perhaps given the chance he will consume himself.”
“But how?” asked the others. “He is a fog. How can a fog be consumed?”
“No,” said the nautilus. “Within the fog is a monster, a being like ourselves gone wrong. He can be found only by entering the fog, by finding him where he finds his prey.” He paused. “Or we can let him be.”
“Let him be?”
“He will consume most of that which lives in the sea. Then he will consume the sea birds that fall from the sky for lack of food. Then he will starve and die. The ocean will lay empty for a time beyond reckoning. And then, life will begin again. For life is tenacious beyond all destruction, beyond all consumption, beyond all death.”
“No!” said the great eel. “We are not creatures of time beyond reckoning. We live now. We live here. We will enter the fog, and though many of us fail and perish, yet others who come after may succeed.” Around her a sound of agreement rose among the animals, swelling and then fading away.
The nautilus sat silent as their murmurs fell away. “It will be dark within the fog,” he said finally, “dark beyond darkness. A being capable of such blind consumption must live in profound darkness. What light can withstand it, I do not know.” Then the nautilus drew into his shell and closed himself within the memory of a thousand thousand lifetimes in the currents of the deep.
“Let us go,” said the orcas. “We are the most powerful of the dolphin family, ranked among the best thinkers of the sea. Our teeth are sharp and we can communicate in darkness. Perhaps we can swim in formation and confuse the monster so that he lowers his guard.” Because the others did not know what else to do, they agreed.
“We will stand ready.” said the great white sharks, “In case you need help, call to us. We live alone and cannot communicate in the dark like you, but we can listen for your call.” The orcas went in. The surface of the fog closed around them.
Almost immediately, one burst back out, not swimming but tumbling as if he had been thrown.
“The darkness!” he lamented, when he could again speak. “I could not think! I couldn’t remember the past or the plan or who I was or where or why. It was as if all thoughts were equal, all jumbled together so that I couldn’t tell what was important or what was real. I started floundering, losing my ability to swim. Just as all began fading, one of my companions, the one in front of me, rammed me, throwing me out of the fog.”
Long though the animals waited, none of the other orcas returned.
After that, many attempts were made and failed: “We will go,” said the octopi. “We do not need to think much, and we ourselves make clouds of darkness for hiding. We can cling to whatever may come after us, and perhaps in attacking us he will injure himself.” They went and did not return
The urchins went in with their poison spikes and their very little need to move. The electric eels entered the fog together, hoping the monster could not tolerate their current. The lion fish carried their toxins into the darkness. None came back.
In the end, they were saved by the defenseless and the young.
A scarred manatee had joined the council late. Not having heard the words of the nautilus directly, she kept to herself, watching and thinking in her slow vegetative way. After the disappearance of the lion fish, she rose in one of the council meetings.
“I speak,” she said, “as one who is not capable of attack or even self-defense. My kind have always relied on knowing our place in the natural order and living within it. It is our only power, the source of our survival. This monster exists only within the darkness that enables his existence. Perhaps we need to face the darkness rather than the creature himself.
“Deep in the trenches of the sea bottom are animals who live in regions where the sun cannot penetrate, as it seemingly cannot penetrate this fog. Perhaps they have the means to drive off the darkness.”
Hidden in her shadow was a small silver jack, who, young and daring, had joined the council uninvited. Emboldened by her speech (the speech of one so formless and slow thinking), and finding himself at the center of the council, he too spoke up: “I have been thinking,” he said, “that living in the darkness the monster cannot see himself. If he could see his own form by the light we bring, he might find himself unrecognizable and fearsome, an enemy to be destroyed.”
So it happened. From the deep trenches came the anglers, row after row, with gleaming lanterns dangling in front of their faces. The jacks gave their silver scales, which were fastened to the empty shell of a turtle, layer upon layer, until they created a multifaceted mirror. The shell was carried by a ring of glowing firefly squid who held it fast in their beaks, drawing in water that propelled them forward, their legs fluttering behind.
When all was ready, a small procession swam to the edge of the shadow. They knew that likely they would not emerge. Behind them in the distance, creatures of all kinds watched as the fog drifted across the procession and it disappeared.
For a time, nothing happened. Then, as the animals continued watching, the fog shuddered and broke into fragments with sunlight piercing through. In the sunlight they could see the anglers and squid scattered and tumbling, and the turtle shell falling, rocking back and forth as it settled toward the bottom.
For the first time they saw the great tentacles of the monster, but these were being shredded and torn by its even greater teeth in a frenzy of churning water that clouded red and then dissolved into the gentle currents.
When it cleared, the sea bottom lay strewn with fragments of bone and limb and scale that showed the monster to be, as the nautilus had said, a creature like themselves grown monstrously wrong.
The watching animals swam over that place, solemn, recognizing that they owed their existence to the few who had succeeded and the many who had not. To those who had gone in and those who had watched and listened. To those who lived on the surface and those who lived below the sunlight.
As the creatures returned to their homes and life ways, scavengers emerged from the cracks and crevices and from their burrows in the sand to eat what remained of the monster and to carry home bits for their young.
When moral and spiritual ideas were handed down via oral tradition, they could evolve with the cultural and technological context in which they existed. Some stories were repeated often around the fire while others, less favored, eventually faded into the hazy past. Uninteresting details might be omitted by the storyteller, others elaborated. New implications might be extracted—rules, roles, and ideas about the natural world--depending on the needs of the era. The gods themselves matured.
The advent of writing changed this. On the one hand, writing was one of humanity’s most powerful inventions. It allowed information to be transmitted directly between people who didn’t know each other. It allowed knowledge to accumulate. But it also allowed ideas –especially those that couldn’t be tested—to stagnate. Written words are frozen in time, a snapshot of the mind of the writer at a specific point in history. Allegiance to a set of civic, moral or spiritual writings allows a person or a group of people to become developmentally arrested, bound to the insights and limitations of the authors.
Canonization, the process by which an authoritative body designates a specific set of writings as complete, perfect, or more holy than all others, makes this worse. Prior to canonization, a single fragment of text may be static but the mix can evolve, with some documents moving to the fore and others falling out of favor, perhaps being lost altogether. Canonization freezes the mix, giving priority not only to the written word, but to a specific set of written words that have received the blessing of a specific human hierarchy.
Ironically, the invention of the printing press, a world changing wonder insomuch as it accelerated the growth and spread of human knowledge, made even worse the opportunities for developmental arrest. By making a static set of sacred texts widely available, it removed yet another form of flexibility and spiritual/moral growth. Clergy could no longer selectively emphasize those canonical texts that fit the moral consciousness of a given time period (omitting the rest), without losing their authority in the minds of many adherents. Some scholars have suggested that fundamentalism had its birth in the invention of the printing press, and that its spread across the planet region by region, religion by religion, has paralleled the growth of literacy.
This leads to two conclusions:
1: Religious fundamentalism, a phenomenon that many consider one of the top current threats to our longevity as a species, can be thought of as problem of communication technology. Specifically, it may be thought of as book worship or, in religious terms, bibliolatry. Recall that an idol is an object (shaped by human minds and hands) that attempts to represent and communicate the essence of divinity. For pre-literate people, statues, images, icons, and sacred spaces filled this role. In an age of mobility and literacy, what better idol than a book? And what more likely idolatry than bibliolatry?
2: As a problem that originated in communications technology, the nuclear standoff of tribal fundamentalisms in which we live may be transcended also by communications technology. Problems introduced by technological evolution frequently are solved by further technological evolution. In fact, I might argue that they are rarely solved otherwise.
In this light it is tremendously exciting that now, for the first time in human history, we have communication technologies that combine the best of oral tradition and the written word. For the first time, utter strangers thousands of miles apart can exchange ideas and information via living documents that evolve continuously.
A book, they say, is out of date the day it is in print. Not so with the Web. Web 2.0 allows an individual text to evolve the way that oral instruction once did. Wikipedia articles change daily as new information becomes available. The Web also re-opens evolution at the level of the collection—a rich, indexed, ever-changing library replaces a canonical list of authoritative texts.
Savvy, entrepreneurial fundamentalists have latched onto new web technologies as a means of dispersing the words and world view of our Bronze Age ancestors, just as their ideological forebears did with the printing press. But in their devotion to this world view they miss the stunning opportunity we have been given.
Now as never before we have the means to honor not the answers of our spiritual ancestors but their questions: What is Real? What is Good? How can we live in moral community with each other? Because we have moved beyond the age of the book and of sacred books, we have the means to make this a conversation, not of a priestly class nor of a single culture, but of scholars and seekers and life lovers from every part of this precious planet. Together we can take the conversation from where it got stuck and set it free once more to flow forward on the currents of human need and knowledge.