MOTHER TERESA, POLITICS, VALUES AND WHAT IS OF ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE

By Paul M. Lewis

Formally, at least in the Catholic Church, a saint is a person who has led a holy and exemplary life and about whom an official proclamation has been made by the Pope that she or he is now in heaven, the latter evidenced by the fact that at least two authenticated miracles can be attributed to that individual’s intercession with God. Following these criteria, the Church declared just the other day that Mother Teresa of Calcutta (nowadays, the city is known as Kolkata) has been decreed a saint.

Yet, in spite of this official endorsement, controversy has continued to follow the new saint. There are those who argue against the wisdom of making a claim in favor of her saintly life, to say nothing of her actual sainthood. Their arguments are relatively well known. They include allegations of her having been willing to accept charitable contributions from sometimes highly questionable sources, a supposed over eagerness to hobnob with the rich and famous and powerful of the world, a marked tendency on the part of the nuns trained by her to refrain from administering medication that might have saved lives, or at least alleviated suffering—in favor of the goodness, even Godliness, of suffering—and, finally, attempts at overly enthusiastic, if not outright forced deathbed conversions of lifelong Hindus or Muslims to Christianity. Surely, if any one of these is true, it could be said there may be reason to question at least the first criterion of saintliness, that of having led a holy and exemplary life.

Having said all this, it is not my intention here to try to pass judgment on Mother Teresa. I admit to not having any certainty as to whether the allegations made against her, or the nuns of her order, are true or not; as much as some critics vehemently insist they are. And there are large numbers of people who truly revere her for what she has done and who now pray to her. What interests me, instead, is the complexity, the complications, and the controversies that come to us all as we lead our lives. Mother Teresa’s example is striking for the most part not only because she became famous, but also because her actions have had an outsized impact on many people’s lives.

Knotty and convoluted issues related to what is appropriate or inappropriate, good or bad, and right or wrong regarding our various chosen courses of action plague each of us in our everyday lives. Such choices run the gamut from the relatively small, for example, just how bluntly truthful any of us should be in our interaction with others, on to larger issues, such as whether or not Muslim women should be allowed to wear the hijab, or the burkini, in public. Exactly how accommodating, generally, should one culture be towards another in the face of prevailing opposing local norms, especially given the potential threat of violence; indeed, how obliging or amenable ought a culture be regarding any other way of thinking and acting, when there is a clear-cut clash of values? And there are larger questions still, such as who has the right to decide when a life should be considered viable—whether in the womb or after birth—or having to do with the taking of life generally, either in war or by way of a state-sanctioned death penalty? And what of our human relationship with the environment, with the very earth itself? Was it “put here for man’s use,” or do the animals, all of nature, have their own right to exist, totally separate from anything related to human beings?

Clearly, some people have a lot less trouble with moral ambiguity than others. We don’t have to look far in today’s political landscape to find people willing to condemn entire swaths of humanity because they come from a place somehow deemed to be “less than,” or because they are simply perceived to be too different from the numerically prevailing white population. Or just the other day, when it was reported that Kim Jong-un, the iron-fisted ruler of North Korea, condemned a high-ranking military man to death by firing squad because he was politically incorrect enough to slouch in his seat while the Great Leader was delivering a speech. And, lest we forget about religion with which we began this discussion, members of one faith are hardly immune from condemning millions of others to supposed hellfire because they are infidels or apostates or atheists. And to bring it back to Mother Teresa once more—again if what has been alleged is true—just how certain do you have to be of the righteousness of your religion before prevailing upon a man or woman, in the throes of the death agony, to renounce the beliefs of a lifetime in favor of your supposedly superior religion? Where exactly is common sense there, or simple human understanding, to say nothing of empathy, mercy, or compassion?

I guess it could be argued that it’s just all too human for us to believe that the conclusions we come to are the right ones. And to that extent, we may all be guilty of a blind belief in our own absolute rectitude. After all, isn’t this the very nature of what we mean by a value system, that is, that we possess an unshakable inner assurance in it, and a dogged confidence that our judgments equate to whatever is right and best for the world? Otherwise, how else would we have come to these conclusions in the first place, or why continue to hold to them? And if I am right in my values, than doesn’t it stand to reason that you are wrong in yours if you do not agree with me?

The problem with this argument is that values change, not just from one person to another, but sometimes from one stage in life to another (how many young liberals go on to become old conservatives?), from one culture to another, or from one historical era to another, and if that is the case, how exactly can we be assured that we are so absolutely right? Yet, most of us persist in doing just that. It seems to be almost a part of the human psyche, a kind of biological imperative, or at least an evolutionary accommodation that has proven itself to be somehow advantageous for the species. And yet, I keep coming back to my earlier question: what of understanding, tolerance, empathy, and compassion? Surely, these are equally human virtues. Where do they come in to play? Are they not perfectly legitimate, too, just as much as any others that can be named?

When it comes to living with other people, whether they be of a different language, culture, religion, political persuasion, sexual orientation, or simply a completely varying worldview in general, what may be of greatest use is an ability to negotiate, to adjust, to enter into a kind of give and take, and the occasional ability to back off a bit, a simple willingness to adjust and habituate. Dare I say, to compromise? It might even be said that this comes with a degree of maturity in life, that is, learning when it’s best to speak forthrightly, and when to make some accommodations. Although, admittedly, there can be a very fine line between diplomacy and not speaking up when one ought to. As Walt Whitman puts it, sometimes you’ve got to “stand up for the stupid and the crazy.” But he also cautions, “argue not about God.”

Following Whitman’s advice, I’ll keep my own counsel about whether or not Mother Teresa is “in heaven.” But I will, on the other hand, say that I think Donald Trump is a mean-spirited ogre of a man, who riles up the fears and hatreds of suffering people for his own aggrandizement and self-promotion. And anyone who doubts that humans have had a disastrously deleterious effect on the earth, our home, simply does not know what he’s talking about. In other words, sometimes I speak out about my values, and sometimes I choose not to. But I always act according to them.

At our innermost core—or so it is my belief, my value system—each of us is the very image of the Divine Spirit. That image sometimes gets hidden, forgotten one could say, by our overwhelming ego needs, our foolishness and our ignorance. And all too often our vaunted values arise out of this state, what’s referred to in Sanskrit as maya, or illusion. In the end, the best we can do is what Krishna suggests in the Bhagavad-Gita, that is, try to become one with Brahman, the One Indivisible. He, Krishna, then goes on to say that, in so doing, the individual who achieves this state becomes so blended that he or she “sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained.”

Now, there’s a heaven I wouldn’t mind inhabiting, with or without Mother Teresa. And there, I think, is a value no longer subject to change.

THE VALUE OF VALUES: WHY I’M RIGHT AND YOU’RE WRONG (OR YOU’RE RIGHT AND I’M WRONG!)

By Paul

The word “values” is a term that you hear thrown around a lot these days.  When it’s used in the singular we seem mostly to be referencing its more or less literal meaning, having to do with the worth of something, as in the expression, “the value of a dollar,” or something (some thing) being of great (or of little) value.    But what I’m more interested in is the symbolic or metaphorical meaning of the term.  That may at first sound a little abstract, but the application of our values generally in life, and in the political sphere particularly, and the ultimate concrete results of that application in the real world, is anything but abstract.

Let’s begin by agreeing that everybody has values.  You cannot live in human society and not have values.  I don’t care who you are, even the worst, the most hardened, criminal has values.  His (or her) values may not be your values, or my values, but they are values all the same.  So what exactly are we talking about when we use the term values? They are an internalized system often unconsciously, if tenaciously, held, whereby each individual makes judgments about the world, how it works, or how it ought to work, and about people or things in the world.  Most of the time, our values are automatic, that is, we don’t stop and think about them.  We don’t have to.  We know them; we recognize them immediately. They are powerful and they are visceral, as if somehow coming from the profundity of our inner selves.  They are a system, essentially a kind of internalized ruler against which we measure things.  In so doing, we make important decisions about whether an action, a thing, or a person is good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, proper or improper, acceptable or unacceptable, advisable or inadvisable, some may even say sinful or virtuous.  They constitute one of the most important aspects of our lives, because it is essentially by and in accordance with our value system that we make decisions about how to lead our lives.   

Let’s take a simple, if admittedly mundane, example to begin with.  The other day, I was driving to the gym, when a guy cut me off on the freeway, weaving in front of me without so much as a flicker of a directional signal, so much so that I had to slam on my brakes in order to avoid him.  When, a few minutes later, traffic slowed enough that it allowed me to pull up beside him, I saw that he was texting something on his cell phone.  I was furious, and wanted to scream out the window at the guy, telling him what a jerk he was.  I didn’t have to stop and think, “Well, what are my values in this instance?  Am I in favor of following the law when it comes to driving, or do I feel as though it’s OK to ‘multitask’ by driving (more or less), while texting your boss, or you girlfriend, or your damn lawyer, for that matter?”  I knew immediately that he was wrong.  And, aha, as soon as you hear yourself use that word “wrong” (or of course its counterpart, “right”), you know instantly that you have entered into the majestic and hallowed halls of your own value system.  Even in such an innocuous example as this we see two important things about values.  One is that we recognize in an instant what they are and how we feel about them, and two, we often react with emotion.  I knew right away, without thinking, that this guy was wrong; and he really pissed me off!  So, there you have it: immediacy and emotion.  My values are such that I think it’s right, it is proper, it is appropriate for everybody’s safety to follow traffic laws while you’re driving around at 65 miles an hour, and his (apparently) were that it is perfectly proper, appropriate, and acceptable to send an “important message” as soon as the thought strikes, no matter where you are. 

Now, if such a small thing as being cut off on the freeway (it happens all the time, right?) causes such a reaction, what about the bigger issues?  Without getting into where our values come from (a topic of its own for another essay, or a book, or a whole library of books), what values do we hold related to the enormous questions that are facing our country right now?  It seems to me that the political conventions we have seen of late are very good indicators of the things that are valued by each of the parties.  Mitt Romney, for example, mocked the very idea of climate change.  He also spoke of letting people alone and allowing them to exercise their own creativity and make their own way in the world.  Americans act best when they act alone, and we don’t need any help from big government.  At most, we might accept some level of assistance from family, or from church, but government is almost always and everywhere a bad thing.  It was the classic “bootstrap” speech in modern guise.  As Mark Shields cogently remarked on the PBS coverage of the convention, using a baseball metaphor, “Mitt was born on third base, and thought he hit a triple!”  Michelle Obama, on the other hand, in her brilliant and human and very humane speech, and the President, himself, in his, espoused what I thought of as what is best about American society.  They both came out loud and clear for helping those in need (especially when those people don’t have a millionaire daddy, or if they don’t belong to a church that requires everyone to tithe 10% of their income).  They were for justice, for compassion, for service, for mutual assistance, and for inclusion.  In a word (and according to my value system anyway), the Obamas were absolutely right on, and Mitt Romney was dead wrong.  The President even went so far as to mention global warming, and said that climate change was not a hoax.  Most of  the speeches at the DNC may have been about jobs and the economy first of all, and then the so-called social issues secondarily, mainly women’s rights generally, reproductive rights specifically, and allowing (or not allowing) people to marry whomever they may love.  Still, any mention of human-induced changes to the environment has to be a very welcome (and very politically risky) thing.    

So I hail the Democrats for their values.  I also understand that you get elected mostly because you’ve talked believably about the things that people want you to talk about (i.e., what people value).  And I may think that climate change ought to have been front and center in the president’s speech, not merely mentioned.  Still, I get it that no parent is going to spend much time worrying about the future of the world’s climate, if tonight what is most pressing is whether or not there will be enough food on the table for the kids to eat.  I understand that this is a huge problem, and a very human one, and that there are lots of other enormous problems facing this country right now.  Maybe there always have been, but they somehow seem even more numerous and more ominous these days.  Everything from jobs for the millions of the unemployed, to healthcare for those without it, to a staggeringly burdensome public debt that will sooner or later weigh down the entire economy and grind it to a halt, to overpopulation of the globe, to – finally, once again – the warming of the planet to such an extent that it may someday extinguish life in its entirety. 

It’s all so huge, in fact, that it may sound like a job for God, or at least for some kind of superhero, but for the moment I’m afraid all we have to deal with these problems are fallible human beings, and their attendant values.  As such, I for one am in favor of people taking a close look at those values because, believe it or not, it is possible to change them.  You shouldn’t do so without a great deal of self-scrutiny, and some very serious introspection, but it can be done.  I’ve known people who have done so, as no doubt we all do. 

I only hope that whatever changes people make will be for the good. After all, I know that my values are proper and advisable and appropriate, and that those who disagree with me for the most part have values that are improper and inadvisable and completely inappropriate.  I know this because I know it.  I feel it deep inside.  And don’t tell me that I’m wrong either, because, damn it, I know that I’m right!  But then, so do you.  And that’s the problem with values.

WHAT ARE YOUR VALUES? AND WHY DO YOU HOLD THEM?

By Paul

Can’t we all just get along?  These are the now famous words of Rodney King, the Black man whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles police was the spark that ignited the 1992 riots/civil unrest (choose your term), which engulfed the city for three days.  The answer to that iconic question may unfortunately be, apparently not. 

Now twenty years later, Los Angeles is surely a calmer place than it was back then, but one that is nonetheless still divided.  Just as the country is, and the world, for that matter.  Rick Santorum rails against all manner of evil abortion and gay rights activists, Mitt Romney and Republicans generally seem to believe that nothing the president has done could ever possibly have been for the good, the Supreme Court justices appear to be split along ideological lines over healthcare reform, and all this reflects a country where the overall division between Red and Blue reflects an almost even 50-50 split. 

But let’s not stop there.  The reforms of the Arab Spring, so hard-fought and so hoped for, now seem to be devolving into a series of sectarian struggles between those who want western style democracy and those who favor Sharia law. Egypt, for example, centuries ago a paragon of peace and stability and learning in the Arab world, is struggling these days over how to define itself.  Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who might just become the next Egyptian president, believes that women should be veiled and segregated from men in the work place, that adulterers ought to be stoned to death, and thieves have their hands cut off.  Similar struggles are happening in places like Morocco and Yemen, and who even knows what will take place in Syria, once its current bloody dictator finally gets his well deserved comeuppance?  The St. Petersburg, Russia, city council has just passed a law making any open positive reference to homosexuality illegal, and in Uganda they are deciding whether gay people ought to be jailed, or simply put to death. 

The world over, religious leaders from the Pope in Rome to the Ayatollah in Iran to any number of fulminating right-wing preachers here in the United States inveigh against the destructive evils of secularism.  God will in the end win, we are told, and the godless shall reap their just deserts.  Meanwhile, liberals too often think that those who disagree with them are either sadly misinformed or, well let’s admit it, just plain dumb!  Which, to be sure, probably does not help matters much (as tempting as it may seem), and in the end it drives a bigger wedge between us. 

So, the question in my mind is whether or not there is any way to bring us together.  And the stakes, by the way, are not small.  Leave aside for now the whole question of religion, or of hand-cutting, or of condemnation of homosexuality, bad enough – God knows (does God know?) in itself – and let’s focus for a moment on the very fate of the planet.  ExxonMobil, the archconservative oil company that made more than 40 billion dollars in profits last year (yes, billions, with a “b”), has an “enemies list” of Washington politicians who do not agree with its policies.  Like the religious right, they have now become an almost exclusive backer of Republican politicians, and want desperately to get Obama out.  Mitt Romney will be much more pliable, they conclude, and friendlier to their needs, and he has in fact promised that he would be delighted to cooperate.

All of the above may seem a little disparate and disconnected, but I believe the theme that holds the whole mishmash together comes down to one simple word: values.  Religious people like to think of themselves as those who “vote their values,” but as a matter of fact that is exactly what everyone does.  You do not have to be religious to have values.  Indeed, it is virtually impossible to live in the world without having some sort of value system.  Even criminals have values.  They may not be yours, or mine, but they have values. 

What are values, after all?  You don’t need to be a philosopher to answer that question.  Values are very simply those ideas, those ideals if you will, which each of us considers to be right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, fitting or unfitting, seemly or unseemly, proper or improper.  Values are a kind of internalized ruler, a yardstick that we all carry around within us against which we measure the world, the people in it, and their actions, as well as our own.  Whenever we say “That guy was a jerk,” what we are saying is that he did or said or espoused something that is contrary to my value system.  And I damn well don’t like it! 

That’s the thing about values, in fact.  They really mean something to us.  We very much believe them, despite the fact that too often they may be held at an unconscious level.  One way or another though, whether we are fully aware of them or not, they are deeply, profoundly imbedded in our consciousness.  This is not a game or a mere academic exercise.  These are the very “rules according to which people live their lives,” and you’d better watch out if you cross those rules.  At one end of the spectrum, people kill each other because they have different values.  They stone dissenters, or they cut off their hands, or they imprison them.  At a somewhat milder, though still dangerous enough level, they just call each other names, or put those names on “enemies lists.”  All because what the other guy did or said is not right; it’s improper, it’s inappropriate, it’s unseemly, it’s sinful, it’s – well – it’s downright wrong

What follows from our values is not just how we lead our individual lives, but how we believe that society ought to organize itself.  In my own value system, for example, while the individual reigns supreme, we also ought to mitigate our more selfish instincts, treat each other politely and with respect, and give one another some space.  But not everyone puts individuals at the top of the heap.  There are lots of societies in the world where the collective is far more important than any individual’s needs.  That may come off as sounding too abstract.  What I mean, for example, is that maybe the family, or the tribe, or the religious group is what ought to call the shots, and it’s incumbent on each individual person to bend him or herself to the will of that group. Let’s say that Abu Ismail does get to be president of Egypt some day, and you happen to be gay.  Well you’d better hide that fact and not espouse all those western (individual) style desires to express who you are.  Best just shut up, marry a woman, and have kids, because religion and “the family” (read: one man and one woman) are the things that are valued here – or else! 

And who’s to say that I am right, and that Abu Ismail is wrong?  This very question, in fact, takes us right back to the issue of values once again.  As soon as you see those words “right” or “wrong,” you know immediately what territory you have strayed into.  Which is why I’m glad that I live in the United States after all, because in theory at least this is where all men, and women, too, presumably (note we are talking about individuals here) are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And if that’s not a statement of values, I don’t know what else it might be. 

Unfortunately or not, each person also believes firmly and beyond any shred of doubt that his or her values are the best values that there are.  Otherwise, after all, we wouldn’t hold them in the first place!  Which in the end is the reason why it may not be so easy to get along.  Of course, the opposite side of the proposition is, what other choice do we have?  We can wage war, we can cut people’s hands off, we can imprison them, or we can try to come to some kind of compromise whereby I’ll let you live by your values, if you’ll let me live by mine.  That’s what I thought we were trying to do here in this country, by the way.  That’s what I thought they meant when they said that we were all created equal.  That’s what I thought was meant by the rule of law. 

And maybe it is.  Maybe it’s as simple and as uncomplicated as live and let live.  Except this too comes down to a statement of values.  What it means is that it’s proper to give individuals their space.  After all, I have my rights, don’t I?  If Abu Ismail would only listen to reason, if ExxonMibil would only see how destructive their policies are, if the Supreme Court would only recognize that each of us has a right to healthcare, if the St. Petersburg city council would only let people live their lives.  It’s all so obvious, isn’t it?  Anyway, I think so.  And, God help us, let’s just hope that I’m not wrong!