Rachel Naomi Remen, Prabhu Guptara, Sharon Salzberg, Et Al.
Repossessing Virtue: Wise Voices from Religion, Science, Industry, and the Arts
As the global economic crisis began to unfold this past fall, we wanted to respond immediately, in our way. We began to conduct an online conversation parallel to but distinct from our culture’s more sustained focus on economic scenarios. For in each of our lives, whoever we are, very personal scenarios are unfolding that confront us with core questions of what matters to us and what sustains us. We made a list of our guests across the years who we thought might speak to this in fresh and compelling ways.
Rachel Naomi Remen is founder of the Remen Institute for the Study of Health and Illness and a Professor of Family Medicine at the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University in Ohio. She’s also a Clinical Professor Emeritus of Family and Community Medicine at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, that’s where she developed “The Healer’s Art,” her course for medical students. Her beloved books include Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings. And in September, 2022, she will publish her first book for children: The Birthday of the World: A Story about Finding Light in Everyone and Everything.
Prabhu Guptara is Director of Executive and Organizational Development at the Wolfsberg Centre, a subsidiary of UBS of Switzerland. He writes and lectures about issues at the intersection of business practices, religious worldviews, and ethics.
Majora Carter is founder and executive director of Sustainable South Bronx. She was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 2005.
Vigen Guroian is professor of religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia. His books include The Fragrance of God and Inheriting Paradise.
July 30, 2009
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we continue our ongoing series, “Repossessing Virtue,” with wise voices from religion, science, industry, and the arts, drawing out fresh thinking on the moral and spiritual aspects of economic crisis. We made a list of our guests across the years who we thought might speak to this in fresh and compelling ways.
SHARON SALZBERG: Suffering is something that we tend to avoid, we shun it. If we ourselves are suffering, we feel humiliated. One of the things that should make us closer is our vulnerability and yet we can feel so isolated rather than really together.
VIGEN GUROIAN: It’s a good moment to sit back and reflect on what’s really valuable in our lives and what’s lasting. And maybe riding the crest of the wave was exciting and exhilarating, but maybe there’s an advantage to being landed on the beach.
MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. As the economy has faltered, we’ve grasped to understand what went wrong and how. But beneath economic explanations and remedies, these questions compel us to other kinds of reflection, on qualities of human nature that ultimately determine economies and markets, on qualities of humanity that we want to cultivate in ourselves and our children. How will we redefine what matters in this moment and who will we be for each other? This hour, we draw out eight wise, diverse voices on spiritual and moral aspects of living in and beyond economic crisis.
From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, we continue our ongoing series, “Repossessing Virtue,” with wise voices from religion, science, industry, and the arts.
PRABHU GUPTARA: A hundred million people had been freshly thrust into poverty as a result of the crisis that we’re going through. Now any human being who just has a normal sensitivity to what’s going on, you know, you’re just torn by things like this.
SHARON SALZBERG: Suffering is something that we tend to avoid, we shun it. If we ourselves are suffering, we feel humiliated. One of the things that should make us closer is our vulnerability, and yet we can feel so isolated rather than really together.
VIGEN GUROIAN: It’s a good moment to sit back and reflect on what’s really valuable in our lives and what’s lasting. And maybe riding the crest of the wave was exciting and exhilarating, but maybe there’s an advantage to being landed on the beach.
ESTHER STERNBERG: Whenever you lose dreams, that’s grief, that’s grieving, and I think when it’s happening collectively, there is a collective anxiety, a collective depression happening in our communities, but, I mean, that’s the bad news. The good news is that, if you understand those triggers to the stress response, then you can stand back and say, ‘OK, what can I do about it?’
MS. TIPPETT: As global economic crisis began to unfold this past fall, my producers and I wanted to respond immediately in our way. We began to conduct an online conversation parallel to but distinct from our culture’s more sustained focus on economic scenarios. For in each of our lives, whoever we are, very personal scenarios are unfolding that confront us with core questions of what matters to us and sustains us. We made a list of our guests across the years who we thought might speak to this in fresh and compelling ways.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who we’ll hear first, is a physician whose own experience of chronic illness has shaped her philosophy of healing and medical education. She’s also the author of beloved books about medicine and life, Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings. We spoke with her at home by telephone and posed a few questions that guide all the reflections of this hour. What are you doing now that is different? What moral and spiritual resources, what virtues, are you drawing on? And do you consider this economic moment to be a moral or spiritual crisis?
DR. RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: I consider life a moral crisis (laughter). Life itself is a spiritual crisis (laughter). But the thing that interests me about this are the questions that are coming up in the minds of people. There are questions like this. What can be trusted? What can be trusted? What will sustain me? What do I really need in order to live? These are questions that you ask yourself almost on a daily basis these days because of the economy. But what’s so interesting to me is these are profoundly spiritual questions (laughter).
These are questions one asks to one’s self just before you initiate a spiritual search. What can be trusted? What will sustain me? What do I really need in order to live? And if you follow these kinds of questions out, they lead us to a deeper, more passionate, better way of living and a much deeper connection to a larger reality. It’s an opportunity to live better, to live more consciously and according to your own genuine values, not the values of the culture. The culture tells me in order to live, I need to have 43 lipsticks and 10 face creams and no wrinkles, right? But those things cost a lot of money. And because I can’t buy them now in a knee-jerk way, I find myself recognizing that I really don’t need them. I need something else.
And I think that the economy is a pointing finger to a spiritual emptiness that has been among us for a long time and that we have an opportunity to fill it now, and that’s very, very exciting stuff. You know, in just thinking about all of this money, money itself, physical money, densest form of human energy. That’s what money is stored energy. Now energy follows belief. The economy is based, I believe, not on scientific laws as much, but on peoples’ beliefs.
You know, what is a good life? What is a good life? The answer to that drives an economy or other such questions or thoughts or beliefs. I believe that I’m alone and therefore I have to have something to be with me, to take care of me. I’m not safe. My whole life is about getting safe, so I spend money or don’t spend money based on these kinds of beliefs. So another way of saying that is we got into this place because of the story, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, about the world, that the goal in life is comfort, which is, I think, one of the most dangerous stories in the whole world, by the way (laughter). But the opportunity here is to change the story.
I’m 70 years old, and, you know, people walk around me and say things like this: ‘Well, you just sort of ride it out. You know, eventually it’ll come back, the economy will come back. It always does. It’s just a matter of time.’ You know, that’s true for people who are younger than I am (laughter). By the time the economy comes back, I probably won’t be here. So, you know, these are major issues for people of my age. It confronts us even more acutely, because we don’t have the time for this thing to recover itself on a financial level.
But, you know, what am I doing differently? These questions of the foundation of my life are with me in the supermarket, which is very different than it was two years ago. You know, it’s what do we sail our boats by? What’s the star that guides our boat? Is it fear or is it something else? There’s a wonderful quote which goes like this: “Often you can see the light from your star most clearly after it has grown dark.” And it’s grown dark, and a lot of people have discovered they’re not sailing their boat by anything. And they might notice that there is a star that they want to follow, and I think that’s the opportunity.
MS. TIPPETT: Rachel Naomi Remen.
Prabhu Guptara is experiencing the economic downturn from one of the world’s largest banks in Switzerland. Indian-born, he is spiritually a Hindu, he says, and a follower of Jesus. Several years ago on this program, Prabhu Guptara discussed a research project he conducted called “The Gods of Business.” He found that the world’s major religious traditions had, by and large, failed to equip their followers with practical ethics that found expression in the workplace. This failure, as he sees it, has now come full circle.
PRABHU GUPTARA: There was a chain of things one after the other which has caused the problems that we’re in. So at every point, it might have acted as a safeguard if people had in fact applied their moral sense to what they were doing. But, of course, the problem has been globally in all cultures, you know, over the last 20 years or so that we have become more and more greedy individually and, at the same time, more and more frightened individually.
On the one hand, we can make huge amounts of money. You know, if you’re reasonably intelligent and reasonably well educated and happen to be in the right place, as it were, you can make huge amounts of money. On the other hand, if you’re not well educated or if you happen not to be in the right place, we make nothing. So the problem is that we have created the global system in which we have a choice between having a lot and having nothing. Whereas traditionally, you know, you went to your farm, you did your best and, of course, you waited for the rains, but really at the end of the day, you got something.
According to world bank figures, a hundred million people had been freshly thrust into poverty as a result of the crisis that we’re going through and that was already the case eight months ago or whatever it was when the figures released. Now any human being who just has a normal sensitivity to what’s going on, you know, how do you cope with knowing that the system, which was beginning to rescue people out of poverty has actually thrust them back into poverty?
Now if you’re aware of these kinds of things and you’re just normally humanly sensitive, you know, you’re just torn by things like this and you need to have some supernatural point of reference which keeps your mind and heart calm and enables you to act sensibly or at least (laughter) halfway sensibly in the kind of situation in which we are. Now I’m a Hindu follower of Jesus. I look to two sources, one is to Jesus personally as it were, to Jesus the person, and secondly to the Bible. These are the two sources to which I go to give me the peace of mind, as I say, in terms of my relationship with God. But even if it gives very simple things in mind, they would make a lot of difference.
For example, the keeping of the Sabbath. What is the keeping of the Sabbath all about? It is saying, ‘I could work. I could be productive on this day, but I deliberately choose not to be productive on this day so that I can orient myself to something other than what is material.’ If our society just took that one very simple thing into account, if it took the time every seventh day to just relax, stop rushing around, and do something completely different, whether it’s going for a walk on the beach, whether it’s spending time with friends, whether it’s listening to music or whatever else, instead of filling our lives with stress and with material preoccupations as we do. There are very simple principles given there by which we can release ourselves from the materialism of our society.
MS. TIPPETT: Hear more in-depth conversations with Prabhu Guptara and all the guests in this program at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, more of our ongoing series, “Repossessing Virtue.” My producers and I have been calling up wise guests from past programs and asking them to reflect on moral and spiritual aspects of living in and beyond economic crisis.
Sharon Salzberg, who we’ll hear next, is a Buddhist teacher and author, one of the people who helped bring Buddhist meditation to the U.S. in the 1970s. She is finding that Buddhist teaching on suffering, suffering as an elemental aspect of human reality, sheds a helpful light on our common economic present. She finds in this an edifying contrast to some of the default analysis of crisis that Western culture provides.
SHARON SALZBERG: My feeling about this culture, this society in general, is that we’ve been one where suffering is something that we tend to avoid, we shun it. If we ourselves are suffering, we feel humiliated, not just in pain, but actually humiliated, like we should have been able to control it. Someone else’s suffering, we tend to want to put them away, you know, aside so that we’re not seeing them really directly, and it is so hurtful to all of us. So I think this is a time where the suffering is so blatant, the fear is so palpable, the uncertainty is so strong that we’re having to confront some very serious underlying issues.
I mean, of course, I come from my own life story, you know, where there were so many secrets in my family. So I experienced not only the pain of the conflicts or the loss or the situation, but also that terrible kind of ambient silence that surrounds it, that very strange kind of silence. So I didn’t know what to do with all those feelings inside, and it’s something I’ve observed in, you know, many of my students and friends and companions, you know, along the way as well.
So I think it is, in many ways, a kind of cultural norm that is really a tremendous burden on all of us because, after all, one of the things that should make us closer is our vulnerability. It’s our vulnerability to change, to having circumstance alter and shift, and yet we can feel so isolated rather than really together, especially in a time like we’re experiencing now where people, you know, have felt invulnerable to change. But anyone who really looks deeply into life knows that life can change on a dime. You know, you get one phone call and it’s a different life. And that is something that should have us determined to help one another and help us experience our closeness to one another because it’s true for all of us.
Wisdom teaches us that we rise and fall together and that, you know, this isn’t just a kind of religious or spiritual perspective. But economics shows us this and epidemiology shows us this and environmental awareness shows us this, that there’s no longer any kind of “there” over there that won’t affect us over here. Then as we look for solutions in our own personal lives or as a society, the solutions need to reflect that deeper understanding. Then we can be so impatient and so judgmental of ourselves and scornful of others, and we need to just, like, take a breath, you know, and recognize that many people are being driven by fear, that we need to help ourselves and others go underneath that fear.
I think the very practical methods — certainly that I rely on, that are the core of my own life —have to do with meditation. It’s being able to take that breath and having a sense of who I am apart from what I own or, you know, the kinds of experiences that I have and to return to that more essential sense of myself in very simple ways: you know, breathing, being aware of my body, knowing what I’m feeling as I’m feeling.
You know, so much of us struggle because we get very frightened or very angry and we hardly even know it. We’re so disconnected. You know, 15 consequential actions later, we’ve already sent that e-mail, and we go, ‘Oh, I guess I was angry.’ So to really be in touch with ourselves is a tremendous gift, and that’s what meditation certainly has given me. I actually find myself trying to be more generous, which seems a little counterintuitive except that I think it doesn’t have to be some vast amount of it. It doesn’t have to be material. But the ideas of generosity and the beauty of generosity has become much more pronounced in my everyday life, whether it’s being willing to smile at somebody or listen to somebody in the elevator (laughter) who’s speaking — it’s not a very New York thing to do (laughter), but lately people have been doing that — to respond when someone’s reaching out, to have generosity of the spirit as well as material generosity, even if it’s a small amount, because it helps me remember that we are all in this together, so to speak. And certainly there’s a certain element of restraint in terms of buying and shopping, you know. Not that I ever was, you know, wild in doing that, but there’s a consciousness. But I don’t feel it as like restriction or fear or holding back. I’d rather translate whatever sense of abundance I do have into more generosity and reaching out to others.
MS. TIPPETT: Sharon Salzberg
Martin Marty is a preeminent religious historian. He considers the moral and spiritual aspects of economic crisis as a public theologian. He’s the author of many books. His current project is on the nature of trust and what it takes to build cultures of trust. Martin Marty sees the current economic downturn as the end of a century of two competing visions of social order, a socialist ideology which regulated industry by suppressing freedom, and a free market ideology that, when taken to an extreme, suppressed public concern for the other.
MARTIN MARTY: All crises are moral crises. That is, if we use the word “crisis,” which relates to the word “judgment,” we are making a judgment that things have gotten out of hand. And that’s true in the case of every war, no matter how righteous it may look, of every economic downturn as drastic as this, every cultural change. Yes, it’s a crisis, and it has a moral dimension because we have to reach for every kind of resource. If we reach only for the economic, we won’t get very far because we had everything figured out economically, and it didn’t work because of the moral shortcomings.
If I can, I’m going to bring in a line from Christian theology, which I think, by analogy, could inform a lot. In the letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament, a simple phrase: “We are members one of another.” This is written to people who have a religious commitment that makes them members one of another, but I think that you can, without limiting its appeal to agnostics and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and anybody else in America, you can carry it over and say in the political order, we are also “members one of another” and we pretended we weren’t. And that’s where I think the great immorality lay — that we were on our own. All political groups, all economic groups were acting that way. I once heard somebody say, “He’s a self-made man and he worships his creator.” And that’s the highest form of idolatry, and that’s immoral.
All my life, I have turned and still turn and command others to turn to sustained friendships. I look to my dearest friends, some of them of 10-year note and some of 60-year note, as people who have been through a lot of things that I’ve been through and they endure in different ways. I now have friends whose spouses have Alzheimer’s and so on. We need each other more than ever, and they give us lessons. So I just can’t say enough about that, and I think there’s where you can, again, rebuild trust and avoid some of these things.
I make a distinction between, for example, famous people and celebrities. Celebrities have quacks, and people tell them it’s all fine. I think a lot of the CEOs had boards that were quacks. You appoint this person and give them huge salaries, a huge bonus, and sort of fall down and worship them until it all falls down. Friendship is different. A friend can say — I’ll use my name in it — ‘Come on, Marty. Get off your high horse. This time you went too far.’ Or, ‘Boy, I can see you’re really down. Can I help you out of this along the way?’
Of course, I’m in the Christian tradition, and I look for a great deal in the Scriptures. And here I’ll do a highly condensed version, with thanks to a theologian of some years ago, Reinhold Niebuhr. In his book The Irony of American History, I think if there’s any word of wisdom that I’d turn to is — but he says, in all human action — good action, investing, starting companies, employing people, using your head, knowing where to go, what to listen to, what to do — you become an agent, an actor. And when you do, there are four things that you do that will always go partly wrong.
You think you’re virtuous. We all thought we were where that nation is virtuous and it could start the wars we want to, and we find that there’s just enough vice in us that it compromised it. We think we’re powerful — biggest army in the world, biggest economy in the world — and now we’re now on our rumps. We can’t end the wars, and we don’t have an economy. We thought that we were wise, and now we find that we were foolish in what we were teaching new generations and how we set things up.
I think I find that so consistently in the Scriptures, but I also find it in philosophers, in Marcus Aurelius and many others that I have to dust off the shelves to look at again. So I think it’s a good time to get out old texts, and I’m not against getting out Adam Smith and John Calvin and other punitive inventors of capitalism along the way, alongside the Aristotles and the James Madisons and the others who’ve taught us secularly what I believe religiously, that we are members one of another.
MS. TIPPETT: Martin Marty was actually the first of more than two dozen people we called up on the phone for this “Repossessing Virtue” series, and there are different ways for you to hear these voices as we continue to gather them. Twice a week, we’re posting new interviews on our staff blog, SOF Observed, along with the back story of each. We’ve also created a special Web site featuring all the interviews in one place. Listen to fuller conversations with the guests in this program and explore other voices, including an Evangelical minister and a secular humanist, an economics professor and a poet. Find links to all this and more at speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, other fresh and bracing approaches to economic crisis: scientist of stress Esther Sternberg, Chinese-American novelist Anchee Min, urban environmentalist Majora Carter, and Armenian Orthodox theologian and gardener Vigen Guroian.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, we continue our ongoing series, “Repossessing Virtue,” with wise voices from religion, science, industry, and the arts, drawing out fresh thinking on the moral and spiritual aspects of economic crisis. My producers and I have developed this as an online conversation, a kind of parallel conversation to our culture’s more sustained focus on economic and political analysis. We made a list of our guests across the years who we thought might offer fresh and compelling wisdom. We called them up at home and spoke with them by telephone.
Esther Sternberg, who you’ll hear next, is an immunologist who works at the intersection of physiological health and the emotions. She’s currently studying the neurobiological effects of place and its impact on our sense of well-being. We asked her the same three questions that guided all the reflections of this hour: What are you doing now that is different? What moral and spiritual resources, what virtues, are you drawing on? Do you consider this economic moment to be a moral or spiritual crisis?
ESTHER STERNBERG: I really don’t consider it a moral or a spiritual crisis. I view it more in a biological sense or at least my solutions to it or how to deal with it come from the biology. I think, when you look at the numbers of people who are feeling stressed over this crisis, the American Psychological Association released numbers saying that eight out of 10 Americans surveyed felt stress and anxiety over the economic crisis and that’s, of course, not surprising because it touches us all. That’s almost as high, but not quite as high as the numbers feeling stress and anxiety after 9/11. And when you think about it, I mean, the situations are quite different, but there are similarities and there are similarities that trigger the biological stress response.
So what we’re going through now is really a perfect storm of triggers that are very powerful stimuli to that biological stress response. We’re experiencing rapid change, uncertainty, and uncontrollability. And those three things turn on the brain’s stress response so that we are pumping out these stress hormones and nerve chemicals that make us feel all those things that we feel when we’re stressed. So what are the symptoms? We feel our heart beating fast, we feel anxious, we can’t sleep. We worry, of course, about all the things that could happen, that might happen. We don’t know about our jobs, we have all this uncertainty, and it can turn into depression. It can certainly affect our moods.
Another things that happen during this kind of stressful situation as opposed to, for example, when a physical event happens like 9/11 or just, you know, back it up a little bit, if there’s a huge snowstorm and the whole community is affected. What happens in those situations is that people come together, and that’s a very important coping mechanism. I think what may be happening to a certain extent here is that there is a stigma to losing your house and losing money, losing your job, so there’s social isolation. And that just amplifies and contributes more to the stress and anxiety and depression.
There’s also a — I was talking to an economist recently who said we’re all going to have to go down a notch in our standard of living. You know, it used to be that everybody imagined that we’re just going to continue staying at the standard of living we’re at or else increasing. And all of a sudden, now we have to reverse our expectations. So there’s a loss whenever you lose dreams. And that’s grief. That’s grieving. I think when it’s happening collectively, there is a collective anxiety, a collective depression happening in our communities and in our society. But, I mean, that’s the bad news. The good news is that, if you understand those triggers to the stress response, then you can stand back and say, ‘OK, what can I do about it?’
So if we break down those points that I made before, that we’re going through this period of uncontrollability, uncertainty, rapid change and social isolation, there is something we can do about each of those things. Gaining control over a situation is a very potent way of reducing the stress response. Now you might say, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about,’ and I certainly don’t know anything about, you know, how do we fix this economic situation.
But you can stand back and look at your life and say, ‘Well, there are things that I can do to gain some control over this situation.’ You know, the first thing, if it’s finances that’s at the core, you know, seek help from an expert whom you trust. But apart from that, you can gain control over other parts of your life. You can stand back and say, ‘OK, what is it about my life that I’m really worried about and what are the good things?’ I mean, that sounds like a very trite and simple thing to do, but it works.
Social support, social ties, are a great way to counter stress. Altruism is another terrific way to counter stress and to help the situation. So even if you don’t have the money yourself, you know, you can help a neighbor. You can take a neighbor out for a walk. You can bring some food over to a neighbor. Whatever it is that you can do will help the situation in a tiny little way, but you add up all those tiny little ways to help in a neighborhood, in a community, you know, in a culture, and it adds up just as you add up all the stress and anxiety and it adds up too, so you can begin to chip away at that.
I thought of my father who came through the war and the Holocaust, and he was a very nonjudgmental person. He would often pull out the Bible from — after dinner. He was not a very religious person. He didn’t practice religion in an orthodox way at all, but he would pull out the Bible and read the Psalms. It was the 23rd Psalm that I remember most. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, I shall fear no evil.” I guess I go back to that. But you can come through terrible times and you can find the strength and sometimes the terrible times can actually give you the strength to move forward and actually to come up with creative new solutions in your own life and in the lives of others.
I think where I’m finding the strength, because I was pretty nervous at the beginning of this. You know, you see the stock markets falling, you see your retirement disappearing. And then I stood back and I thought, ‘Well, if he could have weathered it the way he did and weathered a much worse period in our history, I can do it too.’ And another way that he weathered it was that he did service for the public good. He was always committed to the public good. And that gave me strength, and I decided, ‘Well, I’m in a position to help. I can write about this. I can help other people. I can speak about it.’ Actually, that’s when you contacted me, when I was so happy to be part of this. Whatever I can do to help others helps me weather it too.
MS. TIPPETT: Esther Sternberg.
Anchee Min is a novelist whose writing centers around the modern and ancient history of China. Her reaction to the economic present and American reactions to it are galvanized by her personal history of living through the most brutal era of Chinese communism under Chairman Mao, including several years she spent in a forced labor camp.
ANCHEE MIN: Personally, I think — I’ll give you an example. I’m very different from my daughter who was born in Chicago. I am an immigrant and a new American, and I came to this country in 1984. I don’t have an American sense of entitlement. This is what I see. That’s the root of the things. You just think, you know, in America, you think you’re beautiful. You can do anything as long as you dream hard. Dream hard and work hard to get it, it’s a very different concept. You tell your kids that you can be anything you want, but you don’t emphasize your responsibility to make it happen.
When I arrived in 1984, I remember I envied the homeless for two things. First, they speak English. Second, right to work for yourself. I was so grateful. I don’t take my time every minute in America for granted, because I feel that this is the first time I own my own life. This whole thing makes me even think more about life, and I think more of life as a gift from God that they gave me and how I cherish it and how I should have gratitude, because happiness is contentment. It’s a sense that you have more than enough, and I don’t have to be a victim of my circumstances.
I think I focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t do, what I lose. I focus on what I can do, which is to write, and that I am making good use of myself and of my life. Nothing is more gratifying, you know. Where I came from, we always — it’s a culture thing that you spend below your means. If I have zero income, I would have just prepared — like six months ago, I say OK, I don’t see that I have any income, I would just tell my daughter that we’re prepared to live in a car, and we’d just deal with it.
I think people take the American dream the wrong way. You know, this culture encouraged people to gamble. You don’t think about consequences because everybody is doing it. American culture, we have flaws. It’s a very good time. I look at this situation as a very good moment, and I think, for the next generation, next children, it’s a strong bell and I think we heard it and we begin the learning process. Timing cannot be better.
MS. TIPPETT: Anchee Min.
We’ve posted our more in-depth conversation with her and with all the guests in this program at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, as part of our ongoing series, “Repossessing Virtue,” we’re drawing out wise prospective and fresh thinking from a spectrum of voices, past guests on this program, on the spiritual and moral challenge of living in and beyond economic crisis.
Majora Carter helped pioneer the notion of social justice environmentalism when she founded Sustainable South Bronx. She didn’t come at that work as a religious person or thinker, yet she draws her evolving sense of the moral aspects of economic crisis from what she learned as she grew to be a leader on ecological crisis.
MAJORA CARTER: It’s so interesting because, when I first started doing this work, I assumed that it had nothing to do with morality or a moral crisis per se, because it was clear that we were already in one, but that wasn’t what was going to make people move out of it. Like, you know, morally we know that people shouldn’t, you know, be dying of starvation or of environmental abuses. Or, you know, we shouldn’t be damaging the earth the way that we do, but it still got damaged. You know, people got damaged. So for me, I really thought of it more as we could like sort of make the argument that this is an economic problem that we need to deal with, and it would be in our best economic interest to do it. Then maybe some people would stand up and take notice.
After really reading a lot about the words and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and recognizing that — and Mandela and Gandhi and all the greats, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman — I realized that their quests were spiritual quests. For them, it was as much of an understanding that oppression is as bad for the oppressor as it is for the oppressed. So that a huge part of our job is helping folks understand that their liberation is tied up in everyone else’s no matter how powerful they think they are.
I’m trying to be much more joyful, deliberately so, you know, and take time to really appreciate all that we do have, all that I have, because I think that’s what’s going to help make the work much more joyous to begin with. You know, when we understand that, you know, we’re not fighting a losing battle, when we understand that, you know, there are so many beautiful things that we need to feel encouraged by. You know, it’s what I’d actually never see in my lifetime. You know, America has its first black president, one that’s actually talking about the green economy as something that we should aspire to and not something that we’re going to do because we think it’s cute (laughter).
I’ve seen not just, you know, parks develop where there were former dump sites, but I’ve seen peoples’ lives change. I’ve seen how people — you know, many former convicts or many people who, like, actually never had the understanding of people in their family actually even having jobs suddenly understanding that they could be really powerful, and the fruits of their labor could help a tree grow, could help their family survive. So for me, I’m, like, what do I have to be upset about? I heard a great saying not that long ago: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” (laughter), and I think about that now because, you know, we all have so much wisdom.
I mean, I look back at my life — and I’m talking of the life of doing this work as an activist and urban strategist — all I can think is, the tools have always been there. We’ve just not been comfortable and confident enough in our ability to help make things happen. You know, as a black woman coming from, you know, a really poor, challenged community, knowing that I’ve got something to offer the world, just my understanding that, you know, has been a tremendous source of power for me. And knowing that I’ve got something and I’m not always going to be on the receiving end and that I actually do have something to give and just giving it — that’s where I get my strength.
MS. TIPPETT: Majora Carter.
And we end this program with the reflections of Vigen Guroian. We spoke with him as he prepared for the Christian season of Lent, which he observes on the Eastern calendar of his Armenian Orthodox tradition. He is a theologian and also a master gardener, a college professor who writes about moral imagination in literature, politics, and everyday life.
VIGEN GUROIAN: I wonder whether more of us couldn’t have expected this to come upon us. Therefore, it’s not simply an economic crisis. It’s a crisis of imagination and moral imagination, among other things. I’m an educator, aren’t I? So I often think in terms of education. I would like to make mention of an essay that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. It’s an article entitled “On the Choice of a Profession.”
When I first read it, it seemed to address directly my experience at Loyola College where, in the ’80s and early ’90s, what was once a liberal college was educating most of its students in business education, And I, in the theology department, was seeing those students because they were required to take theology. I was concerned because I could see that what was once a liberal arts education dedicated to bringing into the world broad human beings with vision was in fact narrowing their vision in ways that they were likely to make choices which would not be good for themselves or others in the future. So I think there’s been a failure of education here.
But Stevenson wrote this at one point in his imaginary conversation with a banker friend. He said: “‘My good fellow, give me a moment.’ ‘I have not a moment to spare,’ says he. ‘Why?’ I inquire. ‘I must be banking,’ he replies. ‘And what,’ I continue my interrogatory, ‘is banking?’ ‘Sir,’ says he, ‘it is my business.’ ‘Your business?’ I repeat. ‘And what is a man’s business?’ ‘Why,’ cries the banker, ‘a man’s business is his duty.'”
Then Stevenson goes on to observe about the conversation. But this is a sort of answer that provokes reflection. Why is he a banker? I don’t know that many of our students who are going through business education knew why they were going through business education.
I did bring these issues up and, more often than not actually, in a course that I taught on theology and literature. And the point that I’ve made over several years with students was, ‘I’m glad you’re here. I happen to believe that you ought to be reading good literature because from literature, you’ll gain a much fuller sense of life and all of its challenges, both moral and physical, and that reading a novel is not like reading a textbook, which is perfectly linear and which adds up. But life is more elliptical, and novels typify that. You may not be able to understand the first chapter of a novel until you get to the fifth chapter. You may not understand what happened in your life at the age of 20 until you’ve reached the age of 40, but you’ll be a lot better off for it in the long run if you’re reflective and are able to learn the lessons from your past.’
Lent leads to the Cross, and cross comes from, well — cross and crux come from the same Latin derivative. We are at a kind of crux. It’s a good moment to sit back and reflect on what’s really valuable in our lives and what’s lasting. Maybe riding the crest of the wave was exciting and exhilarating, but maybe there is an advantage to being landed on the beach. So Lent is a time of fasting, but not just a time of masochistic self-denial (laughter). It’s supposed to be a time in which you put some things to rest. You let go of some of these passions that have disordered your life, that have led to decisions and circumstances which were not the best for you or people around you.
And if we can take advantage of this moment to recognize that these things are ephemeral and that these passions can lead us in the wrong directions, that much better, I suppose, and to recognize also that it’s not without pain. But there’s a spring too (laughter). In so much as you do live in a community, a lot can be learned and a lot can be added to your life if you just take notice of those people that are around you upon whom you are dependent or depend upon you. Talk to them. Live life with them.
MS. TIPPETT: Vigen Guroian.
Earlier in this hour, you heard Rachel Naomi Remen, Prabhu Guptara, Sharon Salzberg, Martin Marty, Esther Sternberg, Anchee Min, and Majora Carter. And now, we’d like to hear from you. This coming May, we’ll be producing a second program on the moral and spiritual aspect of economic crisis dedicated to your voices. News stories tell us how people’s lives are changing in unanticipated and difficult ways.
We’d like to hear your stories too, but accompanied by another layer of reflection. Are you experiencing this economic moment as a moral or spiritual crisis as well? Do concepts of trust, of living in community, of what sustains you have relevance in new tangible ways as you face changed economic realities? What qualities of human nature do you want to cultivate in yourself or your children? Who will we be for each other? Look for the Share Your Story link on our home page, speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, and with help from Amara Hark-Weber and Nancy Rosenbaum. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.