CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice

Individuals In Community

This was presented at TPUUF on 10/24/99 as part of a service entitled Individuality and Community which Toni and I led jointly. The central idea was an exploration of the tension between the needs of the individual and those of the community. She had spoken on communities of individuals; this was my response:

Toni has spoken to you about communities and the strength of communities; how individuals join in community. And she came at the end to one form of community, (the JPD) Chalice Lighters, which is really a dispersed community, almost a virtual community, in that there are literally thousands of them and yet here there are only a few dozen and the thousand never get together, except through their acts and through their intentions.

I want to start talking about the other side, the other hand which makes the hand clap, and that is the role of the individual in community. I want to start by reflecting on another dispersed community of which Toni and I are members, the Mountain Highlands Camp and Retreat Center, which is near Highlands, NC. This is a community which has thousands of members; people who come to the Mountain always leave a part of themselves there and they are drawn back as if there was an elastic band. There is a dining hall on the Mountain and a plaque in that dining hall, which comes back to my memory again and again, says, in part:

"We drink from wells we did not dig; we are warmed by fires we did not build..."

And that, I think, really emphasizes the issue: once a community is built, it is there to support the individual. There are wells to drink from and fires to warm oneself by. And one can ask, as I will this morning, how can this happen?

Reflect back on how each of us started: there we were, wiggling, and turning over, dreaming, warm and comfortable and then suddenly, BOP, we were out in the world, separate, autonomous, screaming our heads off, cold, hungry, and, as Toni pointed out, about as dependent as you can possibly imagine.

But we are all fortunate: as members of the human race, we don't hatch out of eggs. We are born into community, the community of our immediate family, our parents and our siblings. And as we grow and develop we find ourselves, almost without intending to, being parts of more and more and more communities. First little play circles, and then kindergarten, clubs, sports groups, teams. Then we go out into the world and we begin to work, and there is the community of work, of clubs, political organizations, and all the myriad associations which de Tocqueville marveled about.

And to each of these we owe a debt. We are born in debt, born free, totally dependent and deep in debt.

The question is how do we repay these debts? We benefit from community - how do we return the gift?

When the history of the 20th cen. is written, sometime two or three hundred years from now, one of the features of that history will be that this century saw the progressive and almost total decline of social systems which were designed to enforce the public payment of these private debts: communism, socialism, nazism, fascism, all of the -isms all of the collectives. It is interesting that one after another they have all proven to be hollow dreams and have crumbled away. Even, and I say this without being anti-Catholic or anti-religious, even Catholicism, particularly in South America where it attempted the same enforcement of public payment of private debts.

How do these debts get paid?

They get paid very well, the question is how do we do it.

Well, I stand here and tell you, I think that Yogurt is the answer!

I want to talk to you a little bit about yogurt. I was in Europe all last week on one of those trips where it was a different bed every night in a different city. Except for the tickets, I wouldn't have known where I was. And I was wandering around yesterday afternoon, home at last at least in body, bumping into furniture and decided that I'd like to have some yogurt.

Well, now I know that there are some people here who make yogurt. I could have set out on my own. I could have gone out and milked the goat in the back yard (but I don't keep goats out there!) and then I could have done the necessary things and put it on to work and in about a week or so I'd have had yogurt. And that was cherry yogurt I had a hankering for so I guess I could have gone down to the freezer and I could have gotten out the cherries that I had picked earlier this year from the trees we planted 10-15 years ago. But unfortunately we planted only flowering cherries. They don't bear fruit. So what did I do?

I went to the refrigerator and, lo and behold, there was a container of cherry yogurt! Now this may seem like a silly story but I want to spend a few minutes talking about this container of cherry yogurt.

Toni has worked at many jobs in her life, many of which actually paid her money. In fact, at one time, she even paid for a roof for our house when we desperately needed it and we were very short on cash. And I've also shopped for groceries myself ¨ I do that from time to time. But even within our own little community, we have a division of labor; she does most of the grocery shopping, particularly the yogurt shopping, and these days I earn most of the money. And it is clear that there is an economy, economy and efficiency, because it costs much less of the time of my life to simply go to the refrigerator and get out the yogurt than to have had the forethought 15 years ago to have planted the cherry trees and given them the 20 sprayings they need every year.

There are amongst us billionaires, maybe not in this congregation, and millionaires, maybe not in this congregation also, but I will say to you that we are all thousandaires. Let me tell you what I mean by that ¨ the moon was full last night and I hope that if you missed it last night you'll see it tonight, it'll be almost full and you'll reflect that, in your lifetime, that will only happen one thousand times. Each of us lives roughly one thousand lunar months. And there are various ways we can spend that time: we can spend the time we have curdling milk and growing cherry trees and spraying them. Or we can do what we can do best or better and then go out and buy our cherry yogurt.

And the funny thing is that that when we buy the cherry yogurt, we end up helping an awful lot of other people. If you think about it: somebody had to take care of the goats, someone had to milk the goats, somebody had to deal with the milk and make the yogurt and someone had to grow the cherry trees and spray the cherry trees and pick the cherries and put it all together and make the container, and print the container and advertise it and ship it and sell it. And someone made the refrigerator and built the store. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people benefited from my decision to write books and to lecture rather than to make my own yogurt.

Adam Smith, the great Scottish philosopher and economist, noted this in his book The Wealth of Nations (1776). He was writing about the apparently odd choice that people make to invest domestically rather than in foreign countries and he noted the following:

"By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.  ...He is in this led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention."


Certainly, when I went to the refrigerator for yogurt, it was no part of my intention to promote the well being of the people who make yogurt containers. But, by golly, I did!

The invisible hand, as proposed by Adam Smith, is not a theory but is a sound observation that most of the time, when we do ourselves what we know best, what promotes our own interest, it promotes the interest of others, without our even intending it.

Now we are going to have a short quiz:

Consider Mt. Everest. We all know that it is the tallest mountain in the world and it is a very busy mountain these days, in fact it's so busy there's a litter problem up there and you have to make a reservation to climb and pay a big fee.

Now who was the first person to climb Mt. Everest? Does anyone know? Of course, Edmund Hillary with his faithful Sherpa. But who was the second? Well, we'll have a hard time coming up with the name; the reality is that we remember who was the first person to successfully take that risk, but we don't remember who was the second.

Another example: you all know that most of the ministers are in the UU Ministerial Association are now women; who was the first woman in any religious organization to be ordained in North America? Olympia Brown; a Universalist minister. Now who was the second one?

(I should add that one member of the congregation did know ¨ do you?)

Langston Hughes, the poet, wrote: "Nothing happens except first a dream." It is clear that Edmund Hillary had a dream and Olympia Brown had a dream as had thousands and thousands of others who were the first to do what they did.

Dreams come to individuals; nightmares are dreamt by committees and collectives

There is, in my view, an absolute necessity for individual moral agency. If you have decided that you are going to climb Mt. Everest and no one has done it before and everybody says it can't be done without oxygen, you just go out and you do it. And if you decide as a woman that you are going to be a minister and nobody has done it before and women preaching has been compared to dogs walking on their hind legs, you pay no attention, you just go out and you do it.

Nobody said it better than our own Henry David Thoreau in his famous essay

Civil Disobedience (1849), writing concerning the then current issue of slavery:

"I do not hesitate to say, that those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectively withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them.  I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one.  Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already."


But who is going to be the moral agent, who is going to lead, who is going to be the majority of one?

John Donne, the poet, writing in 1624 (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions) ¨at a time when he was desperately ill and thinking about his own mortality, wrote in part:

"NOW, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: Thou must die.

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

NO MAN is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

All of us are important; each of us is called to lead within his or her special ability.

Allan Herskowitz: a Boston lawyer, tells a story about a conversation he recently had. He was in Germany and a German colleague said, to him "Allan, why are you Jews always going on about the Holocaust? You just keep nattering on about the Holocaust, it didn't mean anything to me; it didn't affect me." And Allan says, he turned to him and said, "When you think of the six million, consider that perhaps one of those would have discovered a drug which could save your life."

A just society, which we all seek, is one in which there is sufficient order to protect each one of us, and certainly fascism, communism, nazism were not just societies, but within that order there has to be sufficient chaos, sufficient flexibility, sufficient gaps and holes and cracks, sufficient opportunities to permit each of us to follow our dreams and, thus, promote, quite unintentionally, the greater good.

Come, let it be a dance: learn to follow; learn to lead, each in its time and each to our need; answer the bell, here as in the larger communities of which we are all a part.

Blessed be.