What are we to do?

May 7, 2009

My partner is German, and he and his generation dealt with the question of what to say to their parents and grandparents who knew what was happening during the war, but didn’t do anything. How to understand that? What to do with that?

What are we to do with this?

In all, 98 detainees have died while in U.S. hands, with 34 identified as homicides, at least eight of which were tortured to death….

I fear that these numbers are too low, but even if they are exaggerated, one death by torture is too much. How will I respond to my little one, who sleeps on my chest as I write this, when he grows up and asks if I knew of the torture my country was committing? When he asks me what I did? Blogging and sermon-giving and voting and going to a protest and praying all feel woefully inadequate, yet it is about all I can think of. I am so disappointed with my country of citizenship and residence. I have never identified strongly with my country, yet I don’t think that somehow relieves me of guilt by association when terrible things are done by the U.S. government.

I knew of so many bad things in our past… yet somehow for me, systematic torture during my lifetime seems so clear… so obvious… so much like something that I feel we should be able to stop. If this is okay, what is not okay? If this doesn’t provoke outrage… and legal action agianst those responsible, what possibly could?

I find myself increasingly questioning what a democracy is. At what point is a country no longer a democracy? How many human rights and international laws must be violated before a country gives up the right to claim noble values and good intentions and such things as rule of law? I know this is not a well-thought out or well-articulated post. Mostly I just feel despair and sickness and a deep sadness about this. I wanted this nation to do better. To live up to its best self instead of confirming the worst.


How Much Is Enough? Buying Green Edition

May 5, 2009

I started my “How Much Is Enough?” series back in February, but haven’t quite got to it yet. Until now.

A while back I read an article about how, if you calculate the environmental cost of shipping ceramic mugs and the heat used to make them and the energy used to clean them it actually turns out to be better to use paper cups and throw them away than to tote your coffee mug around with you and use that. (This ended up not being true, but the point is that there are articles out there making such claims.)

It made me want to bang my head on the table. Because, just when you think you are doing the right thing, an article comes out and tells you that, actually, no you are not.

Then there was the article about how doing a search on google somehow uses more carbon than… well, something. The point is, of course, that it doesn’t occur to most of us that doing a google search uses any carbon or does anything bad, right?

And then, there was the fairly traded vanilla at Whole Foods for $9.99. Could that possibly be worth it?

And, there is my recent checking of the “yes I want to use green energy” box on the form when I signed up for electricity in our new home. I got our first bill and realized that this costs about $70 more a month! That is A LOT. And I have been reading articles about how the new light bulbs that use less energy actually cause as many problems as they solve because they have mercury in them which leaks when they are thrown away, poisoning things.

Aaaaaa! What is a green wanna be to do? How much is enough? And how much is too much? When is it “green washing” and when is it really better? I mean, if I buy unfairly traded vanilla for $1.99 and then give the other $8.00 that I would have paid for the fairly traded vanilla to a NGO, isn’t that probably better than spending $10 on vanilla? What about the extra $70 it costs us to get green electricity? We are still debating if we can actually afford this at all – can we buy $70 less in groceries each month? Yet, if we aren’t willing to do that, can we really say we even try to live up to our values, especially if we can afford it if we make adjustments?

I am pretty sure I am not the only person struggling with all of these questions.

Here is my theory on how much is enough when it comes to buying green:

First, take it easy. The reality is that our individual decisions are not going to make or break the future of the planet. What we do is important, but it is important not to inflate the difference we can make. Although I know it maybe sounds a little bit cheezy, I think we can only create peace in our world if we are peaceful. We cannot be peaceful if we are freaked out about every lightbulb.

Second, do what you can. We all have different things we can do/will do/want to do. We should push ourselves to do more than what is just easy to do. We probably can pay extra for the elecricity, even though it is a stretch. We don’t eat meat, but we fly and drive too much. We buy recycled toilet paper, but we can’t bring ourselves to use reusable wash clothes for this purpose as some do. We can’t all do it all, but we can push ourselves to do more.

Third, use some common sense. I know people are all into calculating this and that, but I think common sense probably goes further than we think. If $10 fairly traded vanilla seems absurd to you, it probably is. Biking is better than driving. Apples from your local orchard are better than ones from Australia, even if the local ones are not organic and the Australian ones are. While some things may need to be researched and carefully calculated, the whole reuse, reduce, recycle goes a long way.

Please feel free to leave your two cents in the comments. I would love to hear someone who has figured this out better than me!


What, they can’t hide the tapes?

December 8, 2007

I know I am by no means the first person to write about this, but I just find it so absurd and continuing evidence of the absolute horror that this presidential administration has wreaked on our country and world, that it seems worth repeating.

As many of you already know, the CIA has destroyed tapes of of interrogations that included “harsh” interrogation techniques. Harsh probably meaning what most people would consider to be torture. First, our president apparently “doesn’t recall” being told that the tapes had been destroyed. I always feel like when a politician “doesn’t recall” something, especially something important, this really that means, “I don’t want to say if I remember that or not.” But, what I find most wild about this whole story is the CIA’s explanation as to why these tapes were destroyed:

“Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the programme, exposing them and their families to retaliation from al-Qaeda and its sympathisers,” [CIA Director Michael Hayden] said (via BBC).

I mean, please tell me that the CIA is able to hide really important things. They don’t have some big top secret vault that they can just lock things in that they don’t want leaked? If it would really be the case the the CIA isn’t able to hide something like this, it seems that this would represent an intelligence issue far greater than the possibility of a few tapes leaking. Couldn’t they get all the people together who run our Central Intelligence Agency and come up with a better reason for destroying these tapes? It just seems so lame.

As with so many things, I feel like blogging about this is such an inadequate response, and almost trivializes the very serious issue of the United States torturing detainees and then covering it up. But, I suppose we do what we can do. So let’s vote. Protest. Blog. Talk to our neighbors. And continue to think something better than what we have now is possible and keep on doing what we can to work toward that.


Doing the Hard Work of Love and Justice: Where is energy best spent?

June 24, 2007

I wrote meditations and prayers for my internship congregation each week when I was the intern minister there.  One theme that came up over and over, for me, was to remind us what was involved and pray for what we needed to “do the hard work of love and justice.” The idea that it is important for us to remember that if we are going to talk about love and justice, as most UUs like to do, it is important to remember that it is about hard work and not just righteous talk or token actions. As I think about what it means to do this in my own life, I often wonder where my energy is best spent to bring about the most good. I know for me, it is often easy to convince myself that what I want to do, or what appeals to me the most, is the best use of my time, especially if what is appealing can seem righteous or really worthy.

All the hub-a-bub about General Assembly, and the not too distant brown bag controversy as had me thinking about what it means to be part of a faith, part of an association, and just what I want my life to look like and where I want to put my attention – how to live out my own call to do the hard work of love and justice.

I think it would be really easy for me to get involved in UUA politics (by this I mean both the important, good work of our Association, and also the somewhat jaded, gossipy politics). I could very easily be a snarky blogger making fun of all the unique and maybe less than common-sense seeming things that happen at GA and in UUism in general. In fact, I do this in my head more than I want, but I try to stop myself.  I think I could have written a scathing post on the whole brown bag thing. But I’m trying not to do this, and put my frustration, anger, and energy into those parts of my life and my faith that seem like they will make the biggest difference.* The question of course is what the best allocation of my time and energy is.
Not that General Assembly or language issues (how we talk about things, for instance, lunches where people need to bring their own lunch) aren’t important, but I am feeling more and more like there are a lot symbolic politics that I could really make a lot out of and that would be sort of fun and feel really important, but I’m not sure if that is where my time and energy should be spent.  And of course, there is the important question of being able to discern symbolic politics from actual important stuff that makes a difference in people’s lives (and makes a difference big enough to be justified, relative to the time and energy spent on it, since time and energy, institutionally and individually, is limited).

All that said, it also seems like one needs to keep one foot in institutional worlds, and bigger questions. I can be a bit leery of the potential for political correctness to run amok. But, then again, some people might tell me that using only male language for God is one of those areas, and what is all the fuss about? And of course, I would argue that it is an important area to be attentive to. Maybe all that happens at UUA headquarters in Boston is not earth-shattering, but certainly some things that happen there and some of what happens at our General Assembly is really important.  The question is how to manage my energy and time – how much can I/should I/must I give to these things that are sort of scarily appealing to jump into, yet at the same time, softly whisper to me that this is not where my energy should go? I think it is so easy to criticize what is not going right or well. It is so much harder to do something different that wouldn’t be make-fun-of-worthy.

Just some reflections on this. No conclusions yet.

*When I talk about making the biggest difference, I don’t mean to imply that UUism is some sort of big social service agency or something that is meant to change the world via our Social Action Committees. For me, I feel like my connection with the divine is, in many ways, through bringing about the kingdom of love/god here on earth. I feel a call to unconditional love, which in some way, I feel emanates from the divine to the world’s beings. This is not meant to be Elizabeth’s Spiritual Treatise on Divine love, but just to clarify that unconditional love is a guiding force in my spiritual journey, which, for me, translates to reducing the suffering of others in both spiritual and material ways, thus the whole thing about “hard work of love and justice.”

**Side note II: This is not to be some sort of broad criticism of snarky criticism or critique of things in general. I think sometimes it is good and needed and constructive. Sometimes it can just be too much, too frequent, and mean. This is mostly about my approach to things.


Shocking News From an Upcoming U.N. Report on Global Warming

April 5, 2007

According to the report, “Climate change is already having major impacts on the natural world.”

You can read the BBC article here.

I am glad about this “growing certainty” and don’t mean to be too cynical. It is just that lots of environmentalists and scientists were already “certain” a while back and if anyone would have paid any attention to them, we wouldn’t be in the huge pickle we are.  The evidence of global warming and its impacts (and potential impacts) have been clear for a long time. I just find it a bit irritating that it is like some sort of great revelation that the world is getting hotter and that this is actually impacting people’s lives.  Gosh. Who would have thought such a thing?  But, in spite of my sarcasm, I do recognize that it is a huge challenge to convince people and governments and businesses to do things differently until people are actually suffering from it.  It is just sort of too bad that things work that way.  Lets hope that people get psyched up enough about global warming and such to do a lot more than cover stories, documentaries, and reports………


Sigh. I am SO trying to be such a friendly, non-judgmental vegetarian. And apparently not coming across that way.

March 7, 2007

I’m sorry to continue with posting about the UU World article on ethical eating. Skip if you are getting bored with it. It is just that my eating practices and care for animals are such an important part of how I understand my ministry – to all sentient beings, humans included! As I mentioned in this post, my response to the UU World article on ethical eating was mentioned at Philocrites here. A commenter on Philocrites post writes

It’s a great article… but a shame that the puritanical streak of vegetarianism ran off with it. People need to act and eat and live more responsibly. But being chided and naughtied and disapproved and shamed for where they’re at isn’t helpful.

Darn it, double darn it. I tried so hard to come across as appreciative of the article, yet disappointed with the conclusions. Does that make me puritanical?

My question: Is there ANY way for a vegetarian/vegan to suggest that vegetarianism/veganism is the best option for eating without it coming across as obnoxious proselytizing? I mean, it is one thing to make comments when people are eating or to do a dying chicken impression or something during dinner, but is it still obnoxious when it is a thoughtful response to an article? Or to gently share about your food decisions when people ask?

Here is how I responded to several comments that seemed to think that my response to the UU World article was  puritanical, self-righteous, obnoxious, or proselytizing…

I understand people’s concern with militant, judgmental vegetarianism. I think it is important to remember that everyone does what they can – some of us fly less, some of us drive less, some of us rescue dogs, help our neighbors, grow gardens, and some of us eat vegetarian. We can’t all do it all, and I hope by pointing out in my response to the article that I need to do a lot of things different in my life – drive less, fly less, etc. – that I made this point. We are all doing what we can. That said, what I was doing was simply expressing that I think that encouraging people to push themselves – when it comes to a range of our living practices associated with compassion, sustainability, and the environment – would be best, and would be what I would like to see from our denominational magazine. No chewing out. No finger wagging. Just encouragement about what is possible and doable, as vegetarianism seems to be for a lot of people. Of course it isn’t for everyone. We can’t all do it all. There are lots of friendly, non-judgmental vegetarians out there, and I certainly intend to be one of them and regret if it doesn’t come across like that. All the best, Elizabeth from Elizabeth’s Little Blog

Don’t worry.  This is not becoming a vegetarian blog. It is just a place where I try to work out difficult theological and social issues that I struggle with.  And this is one of them.

Humbly,

Elizabeth


Food Food Food – Questions About Where to Buy and How and All Sorts of Complex Difficult Questions

March 6, 2007

Just thought I would point out two cool posts on food – one at Peacebang’s blog Poverty and Sustainability and one at the Boy in the Bands blog The Healthy, Sustainable Diet. I think both posts help highlight the complexity of the pickle we are in with food and issues of sustainablity. I would like to write my own post, but now is not the time. Enough food blogging for me in the past few weeks. Glad folks are thinking about these complex, difficult questions.


Ethical Eating in UU World – A Short Response

March 5, 2007

Philocrites mentions the article in UU World on ethical eating and refers to my response to the article in the following way:

Elizabeth, however, thinks the magazine didn’t wag its righteous finger vigorously enough, and wishes it chewed her out for driving a car, too: “I want to read an article in the UU World telling me how unethical it is for me to drive my car in a city with public transportation. I want a faith that says, ‘Hey. Get tough. Small adjustments are not going to cut it in these times.’

While I am appreciative of being mentioned on one of the best UU Blogs around, of course, I don’t wish my denominational magazine to wag its righteous finger at all, or to chew me out. I only wish, that on a topic where the suffering of so many people and sentient beings involved, and with our environment in such a serious state, we were called to be our best selves. For me, it was like saying, “Gay marriage is good. But getting there is too hard. So here are some half-way measures.” I love how our denomination has taken the difficult, uncomfortable, unpopular stances on things that are of so much importance to humanity, and to our world. I just wanted that on this too.


How much is too much? Compassion, giving, love, sacrifice, and living a “normal” life.

February 27, 2007

I am sure many folks out there struggle with how much of oneself is appropriate to give to all the competing demands on our time, energy, resources, love, compassion, etc. and this is one of my ongoing reflections on this topic. Apologies if I repeat things I’ve said before, but it is an ongoing issue I wrestle with and imagine my blog readers wrestle with too.

This manifests in a very tangible way in our household in that one room of our four room apartment has been occupied by a cat or cats on and off since we have lived here (more on than off). Once we adopt out a current bunch of foster cats or kittens we always tell ourselves that we and our permanent cats (who do not like visitors or having a closed room) that we’ll take a break. But there are always more desperate situations, often life and death, where life means we take the kitties and death means don’t take the kitties. So we usually take them.

And, while I know there are lots of people that support our work and encourage us (which means a lot to us!) there are also those looks we get – “Oh, you are those kind of cat people.” We’ve heard “cat freaks,” and comments about not being able to set boundaries. And for me, this represents a big struggle – within myself and within our culture: how much “good” work can you do before people start to think you are dysfunctional? Or before you actually are dysfunctional in a literal sense – not functioning well. I think that this is a legitimate question, especially for ministers and others in so-called helping professions to ask.

That said, I feel that, in our culture and in our denomination even, there is a sense that we need to have some basic comforts of life and if we don’t allow those to ourselves, then perhaps we are being dysfunctional or lacking boundaries. The question is what are those basic comforts or necesities that people need in order to still function as competent helping people? Does it mean we need one day off a week? Does it mean we need an extra room in our apartment or house – a decent amount of space for all our stuff and to have a quiet space away from the others in our household? Does it mean we should be able to take one vacation a year? I think a lot of folks would agree that these are important things to have ways to stay healthy and fresh – ways to avoid burnout. In some sense, I would even agree that these are good ways to avoid burnout (you can see I’m torn here). But I wonder if we have become too convinced by our culture and by ourselves that these are things that people need to do the hard work of love and justice. Along with a million other things I could think of – nicer cars, nicer houses, nicer clothes, special treats at the spa, a food processor (something I recently justified buying). I include myself in this critique/reflection, but sometimes I want to tell us to just toughen up. I KNOW self-care is important – but I think there are many ways to care for one’s self, and people in many developing countries or in the poorest parts of our country manage keep on going without the extra stuff that we sometimes tell ourselves we need. I think of one of the families I know in Nicaragua – the mom is a school principal, the dad a professor and they both work literally 6am until 9pm six days a week, and usually work some on Sundays too. The mom does all sorts of helping work with the children at the school and the families, and has none of the things that we would consider needed “self-care” things. No vacation. No extra space in the small house with four children. No new clothes, spa visits, no days off, no time for hobbies. And she is not a wreck. She just has to get her stuff done and do it. It isn’t that fun, but she and her family make the best of it and still find joy in life. And with all the needs out there, I just wonder how much flexibility our schedules and our lives should have for those “fun” things while the world is in such dire need.

This is has been inspired by, well, a lot of things throughout my life, but also by my ongoing struggle with how to respond to the suffering I see in the world and how to respond to people who seem to me to be overly hopeful. I feel like far too often liberals especially like to be oh-so-hopeful and la la la about how things will be okay in the end and “oh aren’t we making great progress.” And frankly, we are not making such great progress. On just about anything. Poverty. Global warming. Loving all sentient beings. Children’s rights issues. Women’s rights issue. YES, I know that some progress is being made. And we can’t be all negative about everything or it will discourage people, but the progress that is being made needs to be put into perspective. It is, at best, mitigating harm – it is usually decreasing the rate of increase – not decreasing things overall (emissions, abuse, death, etc.).* And I just find it so frustrating when people (including myself!) are talking about needing this or that in terms of caring for themselves while people are just dying all over the place, greenhouse gas emissions are going up, meat consumption is going up, AIDS rates are going up (in some places), women are being raped, children are being neglected, etc. I think since we are not in the thick of the problems (at least many of us are not) we are able to have rather indulgent ideas about self-care and the sorts of comforts we need in our lives to be good-to-go.

I can just very well intentioned people I know saying, “Oh, there Elizabeth goes again being all worried about the suffering in the world. She is such a trooper” or “she has such a good heart”. I know this is meant in the kindest way, but I hate how people think that caring about dying people and sick people and suffering is somehow a personality trait or occupational calling – like it isn’t something that everyone should be fretting about and preoccupied with. Oh, yes, she cares about suffering, he wants to be a baseball player, she wants to be a computer programmer, she tends to be very interested in insects, while he tends to be interested in sad things like AIDS and global warming. When we think about compassion and concern for the well-being of the world as something that some people have and others don’t need to have or shouldn’t have or “just” don’t have, it is a huge problem. But I think that is another post.

Anyway, I don’t have answers. I know that there are a lot of tensions in this post – that it IS important not to get burned out or dysfunctional. That progress is being made on some fronts. I don’t mean this in either/or terms, but rather want to questions and reflect on the ways we understand progress and hopefulness, and self-care and dysfunctionality.

*I starred this sentence It is, at best, mitigating harm – it is usually decreasing the rate of increase – not decreasing things overall (emissions, abuse, death, etc.) because I think it is especially important to think about the progress we make relative to our ability to make progress. An easy example is to think about how even though life expectancies overall have gone up worldwide (in most areas), relative to how high they could be if there was proper medical care for all people, they are quite low. Or, say, the number of animals being put to sleep in the U.S. has decreased in the last ten years – but, given how easy and relatively cheap it is to have animals spayed or neutered, the level is still quite high. My point is to consider relative and absolute progress and not get too proud of ourselves for the absolute progress, while relative progress still leaves a lot to be desired.


UU World Article on Ethical Eating: A Disappointment

February 19, 2007

The cover story for this month’s UU World is titled “Eating Ethically.” As someone for whom eating ethically and compassionately is important, I was excited about the article. While I applaud the UU World and the author Amy Hassinger for taking on this issue, I was very disappointed by the tone of the article and Hassinger’s conclusions.

To summarize, Hassinger begins by noting that she, like many, has tended to like to buy the cheapest food, not the most ethically or sustainably grown food. But she says that this is changing and she has begun to reflect on the way her food choices impact the environment. She eloquently notes that “[Eating] may be the most powerful way we Unitarian Universalists have of experiencing our Seventh Principle, of participating in the ‘interdependent web of all existence.'”

She goes on to outline the “disaster of industrial agriculture,” and, in her section on “the seventh principle response,” she encourages us to consider our food choices and how they are related to the way that we live out our seventh principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. She writes,

Eating, of course, is an essential element of our everyday experience. If we can approach our daily meals with a sense of reverence, if we can recall each time we slip a forkful of food into our mouths the many miracles it took to cultivate, harvest, and prepare that bite, we will be moving toward truly living this radical principle.

She discusses steps that we can take toward eating more sustainably – both on an individual level, and at a congregational level. And it is as this point that the article becomes problematic. While Hassinger mentions that becoming vegan seems like the best response to ethical eating, she dismisses this option by noting that “I admit that going vegan feels extreme to me: I have a hard time imagining a happy existence without the pleasure of a good cheese.” To her credit, she spends one paragraph touching on the option of vegetarianism and veganism as responses to the question of ethical eating:

Inevitably, thinking about ethical eating means thinking about the animals we eat. The Rev. Gary Kowalski, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington…believes that “the greatest and most effective thing we can do to befriend our own bodies and befriend the environment and other living creatures is to eliminate meat from our dinner table.” In my conversation with him, Kowalski ran down a list of highly persuasive reasons to take this step. He told me that eating a 16-ounce steak is equivalent to driving about 25 miles in your car. Each new vegetarian annually saves three acres of tropical trees. It takes 25 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat and 25,000 gallons to produce a pound of beef. Clearly, the choice to become a vegetarian—or, even better, a vegan—is an excellent way to diminish your ecological impact.

But rather than noting that she has decided to reduce the amount of meat or animal products in her diet, or encourage her readers to do so and explain how others have managed to find happiness without cheese, she goes on to present buying “sustainably raised” meat as a response to the challenges of “eating ethically.”

My first concern is the off-handedness with which she dismisses vegansim (“extreme”) and even vegetarianism. She notes simply that “My family and I are meat eaters—my husband is allergic to so many foods that meat is one of the few things that he can eat.” And, while I understand that her husband’s allergy to vegtables is a unique case and perhaps requires him to eat animals and animal “products” to survive, I am disappointed that this exception appears to form the basis for her guidance on ethical eating.

Vegetarianism is becoming more mainstream, and veganism is becoming increasingly more pleasant due to the proliferation of lots of products that expand one’s options. Veganism and vegetarianism should not be wild ideas to call Unitarian Universalists to. They should, at the very least, be the focus of an article on ethical eating – not marginal possibilities, as they are in Hassinger’s article.

Let me be clear: I understand that everyone will not become vegan or vegetarian – that we all pick our battles, our areas to make a difference. I have made the decision to do all that I can to reduce my consumption of animals and animal-based products such as milk and eggs. Yet, I drive too much and I fly too much for various reasons. I would hate for someone who rides his or her bike everywhere to judge me for how I transport myself. I know that my flying to visit my friend in DC is much less ethical than taking the train. Driving to the store is problematic when I could walk. I need to work on this, among lots of other things. But, and this is the key point, I am not writing articles on ethical transportation. And this is the problem I find with Hassinger’s article. If she and her family have made the decision to eat meat, that is certainly their decision to make. But, the problem is then writing an article about ethical eating explaining how people can buy “sustainable” meat and then every Unitarian Universalist household in the country getting a vision of Ethical Eating in their mailbox via the UU World that involves consumption of animal products.

I need people to encourage me to get tough, and make the hard decision to radically change my transportation habits. Because this is what our world needs. We need people be making radical decisions about sustainablity and love. Love for our planet, for the future of the world, and love for sentient beings that are able to suffer just like our cat or dog. I want to read an article in the UU World telling me how unethical it is for me to drive my car in a city with public transportation. I want a faith that says, “Hey. Get tough. Small adjustments are not going to cut it in these times.”

Likewise, we need people to encourage us to make radical decisions when it comes to the food we eat. People transition to veganism and vegetarianism all the time. It might start with meat reduction or cheese reduction. It takes time to adjust. It takes will. But the point is that it is do-able. And, if it is do-able, I want to be called to that.

There is more I want to comment on as it relates to the article, but I don’t want to overdo it here. I will write a follow-up post with some information about how serious the situation of our planet is and why I think that it takes hard, difficult decisions to respond ethically to the situation, and I also have some additional thoughts on living a compassionate life and if and how that can involve eating animals or animal products when it is not necessary for our survival.

Much peace,

Elizabeth