If You Can't Get Out, Get In

...So we hover. Can't get out, and won't go in.

In his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, Parker Palmer tells a story about why one might want to take the inner journey -- plunge into it, since we can't get out of it. Palmer writes:
"In my early forties, I decided to go on the program called Outward Bound. I was on the edge of my first depression, a fact I knew only dimly at the time, and I thought Outward Bound might be a place to shake up my life and learn some of the things I needed to know. I chose the weeklong course at Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine. I should have known from that name what was in store for me; next time I will sign up for the course at Happy Gardens or Pleasant Valley!

Though it was a week of great teaching, deep community and genuine growth, it was also a week of fear and loathing. In the middle of that week, I faced the challenge I feared most. One of our instructors backed me up to the edge of a cliff 110 feet above solid ground. He tied a very thin rope to my waist-a rope that looked ill-kempt to me and seemed to be starting to unravel-and told me to start 'rappelling' down that cliff.

'Do what?' I said.

'Just go!' the instructor explained, in typical Outward Bound fashion. So I went-and immediately slammed into a ledge, some four feet down from the edge of the cliff, with bone-jarring, brain-jarring force.

The instructor looked down at me: 'I don't think you've quite got it.'

'Right,' said I, being in no position to disagree. 'So what am I supposed to do?'

'The only way to do this,' he said, 'is to lean back as far as you can. You have to get your body at right angles to the cliff so that your weight will be on your feet. It's counterintuitive, but it's the only way that works.'

I knew that he was wrong, of course. I knew that the trick was to hug the mountain, to stay as close to the rock face as I could. So I tried it again, my way -- and slammed into the next ledge, another four feet down. "You still don't have it," the instructor said helpfully.

'OK,' I said, 'tell me again what I am supposed to do.'

'Lean way back,' said he, 'and take the next step.' The next step was a very big one, but I took it-and wonder of wonders, it worked, I leaned back into empty space, eyes fixed on the heavens in prayer, made tiny, tiny moves with my feet, and started descending down the rock face, gaining confidence with every step.

I was about halfway down when the second instructor called up from below: 'Parker, I think you'd better stop and see what's just below your feet.'

I lowered my eyes very slowly -- so as not to shift my weight -- and saw that I was approaching a deep hole in the face of the rock. To get down, I would have to get around that hole, which meant I could not maintain the straight line of descent I had started to get comfortable with. I would need to change course and swing myself around that hole, to the left or to the right. I knew for a certainty that attempting to do so would lead directly to my death -- so I froze, paralyzed with fear. The second instructor let me hang there, trembling, in silence, for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, she shouted up these helpful words: 'Parker, is anything wrong?'

To this day, I do not know where my words came from, though I have twelve witnesses to the fact that I spoke them. In a high, squeaky voice, I said, 'I don't want to talk about it.'

'Then,' said the second instructor, 'it's time that you learned the Outward Bound motto.'

'Oh, keen,' I thought. 'I'm about the die, and she's going to give me a motto!'

But then she shouted ten words I hope never to forget, words whose impact and meaning I can still feel: 'If you can't get out of it, get into it!' I had long believed in the concept of 'the word become flesh,' but until that moment, I had not experienced it. My teacher spoke words so compelling that they bypassed my mind, went into my flesh, and animated my legs and feet.

There was no way out of my dilemma except to get into it.

So my feet started to move, and in a few minutes I made it safely down.” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 82-85)
Because there is no way out of one's inner life, one had better get into it. “Had better,” doesn’t mean we will.

* * *
This is part 3 of 6 of "What Growing Looks Like"

Next: Part 4: "Only Way Out is Through"
Previous: Part 2: "Books, Retreats, and the Grown-Up Work of Growing"
Beginning: Part 1: "Growth Amidst Perfection"


Books, Retreats, and the Grown-Up Work of Growing

It doesn't always require a great personal crisis to spur an adult to growth. Maybe you just have a small, nagging, uneasy sense of being stuck. Then a friend says, “read this book.”

The book is the Bhagavad Gita. Or it's a new translation of the book of Psalms, which, you realize, you hardly know at all other than the 23rd. Or it’s a collection of meditations by Thomas Merton, or Thich Nhat Hanh, or Annie Dillard, or Joanna Macy, or Marcus Aurelius, or Neale Donald Walsh. Or it’s the poems of Hafiz or Rumi. Or The Record of Linji. Or Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, or Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (I'm not passing any judgment!)

Whatever it is, you read it. The words seem to glow on the page. You finish the last page and immediately start on first page again, re-reading, stirred, in love with the echoing of the words in your soul, called to explore further.

This kind of thing is more commonly a young adult experience. Still, it can happen at any age.

Or maybe instead of “read this,” your friend says, "come with me on this week-long spiritual retreat." You go. You do weird things that a month before you’d have sworn were much too ridiculous for you: sweat lodges, drumming, excruciating pretzel-twisting yoga, vision quests, deep guttural chanting, or sitting very still and quiet for half-an-hour at a time, 15 times a day. "This is silly," you think. "It’s stupid. Why did I ever come on this?" But you stay. And on the next-to-last day you catch a glimpse of your life. In a flash, you see how stuck it has been while you thought it was moving along just fine, and in that glimpse also a vision of how it can be different, freer, more relaxed, accepting, celebratory.

We adults can settle into developmental cul-de-sacs. When we do, a personal crisis, or something else, might reawaken us to the growing we did continuously as children.

When we were kids, our muscles got bigger all by themselves. As adults, we have to drag ourselves to the gym, or the jogging trail, or some exercise routine.

When we were kids, our brains were getting smarter all by themselves. As adults, it takes some discipline to make ourselves study a new area of knowledge.

When we were kids, it seemed that wonder and delight were built into the fabric of the world and we couldn’t avoid them. As adults, we fall into cynicism and it takes a deliberate discipline to keep alive in us that spirit of the child, that presence to the wonder and beauty inherent in everything.

Our inner life is something we can’t get out of – but as grown ups we might also avoid going into. So we hover: Can’t get out and won’t go in.

* * *
This is part 2 of 6 of "What Growing Looks Like"

Next: Part 3: "If You Can't Get Out, Get In"
Previous: Part 1: "Growth Amidst Perfection"


Growth Amidst Perfection

Are you growing in your faith? Some people grow up and spread cheer. Maybe others just grow up and spread – I don’t know. If you consider yourself a growing Unitarian Universalist, how do you know that you're growing? How do you determine if you're growing or not? Can you measure spiritual growth? I don’t know. It’s not like those little pencil marks on the doorframe showing the child’s height on various birthdays.

What we sometimes call "religious education," or "faith development," or spiritual deepening occurs through all the phases of our lives: the "young, growing god," as well as "the old, aching god" as our hymn "Bring Many Names," says. And as we sing in another of our hymns, "We Laugh, We Cry": "We dedicate our minds and hearts to the spirit of the child . . . for we believe that growing is an answer."

Sara Moores Campbell (now Sarah York, I understand) offers us this prayer:
Give us the spirit of the child.
Give us the child who lives within:
The child who trusts,
The child who imagines,
The child who sings,
The child who receives without reservation,
The child who gives without judgment.
Give us a child's eyes, that we may receive the beauty and freshness of this day like a sunrise;
Give us a child's ears, that we may hear the music of mythical times.
Give us a child's faith, that we may be cured of our cynicism.
Give us the spirit of the child,
Who is not afraid to need;
Who is not afraid to love.
Children are what growing looks like.
If it seems paradoxical what Shunryu Suzuki once said -- he said: “All of you are perfect just the way you are, and you could use a little improvement” -- if that seems contradictory to you, or at least paradoxical -- just look at a child. Perfect, right?

If you have doubts about that, just ask the child’s parents. They’ll tell you: perfect.

If you are still having your doubts, if you are imagining a child who doesn’t seem perfect, think younger. If you’re imagining a flawed 13-year-old, imagine a 6-year-old. If you’re imagining an imperfect 6-year-old, imagine a 2-year-old,.;..oh, wait, maybe skip the 2-year-old. Imagine a newborn.

My first encounter with undeniable human perfection came the day my daughter was born. She was perfect then. She's 31-years-old now. If I ask, "When did she ever stop being perfect?" I have to answer, "She never did." And if she never stopped being perfect, then neither did I. Neither did you.

All of us are perfect, but maybe it's easier to see that in a child than in ourselves or other adults. Yet the very child that so clearly manifests perfection is also always growing. Perfect, yet improving – in the sense of growing, learning, deepening. The ways that they change, the arc of the development they’re on, is a key part of what makes them perfect.

Children show us what growing looks like – while also being perfect just as they are.

Children grow – they can’t help it. Grownups sometimes get stuck. We adults, we can hit a plateau, and stay at that level of development. We can stay stuck in development for years, indefinitely, unless and until something gets the ball rolling again.

It might be something you don’t choose. A crisis jolts you out of complacent stasis. The house burns down, a spouse dies, you lose your job. You’re stunned, and grope for a way to come to terms with the loss. Anybody who says to you in that moment, “This is a growth experience for you,” is liable to be someone you will want never to talk to again.

The perfect and growing (Julia) Child, circa 1970
Then a year goes by, or two, or three, and you find you have put your life back together – and the life that you’ve assembled has a deeper quality to it, a firmer foundation, a greater resilience for whatever the next crisis may be.

We never choose to grow in that traumatic way. We wouldn’t wish such a thing on anybody. But had the crisis not happened, awful as it was, we might have gone to our graves without growing the rest of the way up.

There are other ways it can happen....

* * *
This is part 1 of 6 of "What Growing Looks Like"

Next: Part 2: "Books, Retreats, and the Grown-Up Work of Growing"


"To Arrive Where We Started"

Dialog participants try to build on other individuals' ideas in the conversation. In this way, misunderstanding each other is actually central to the enterprise. In the misunderstanding of what another person meant, we might bring forth a new meaning.

Interestingly, this again echoes that Gospel of John, I notice. David Bohm never talked at all about any of the Gospels. In fact, I am surely misunderstanding him by explaining his point as being in line with that Gospel – which illustrates the point: a new yet related thought emerges from misunderstanding.

You see, in the Gospel of John, People often misunderstand what Jesus says. Instead of speaking in parables and short sayings about the kingdom of God, as he does in the other Gospels, Jesus speaks in long, difficult monologs that are misunderstood. But they are misunderstood in a way that opens up new levels of meaning.

If there can be said to be a goal of the various incarnations of "Bohm Dialogue" it turns out it is the same goal the spiritual path has: to understand ourselves. For dialog groups, what it’s all about is the whole group getting a better understanding of itself. Bohm Dialogue is used to inform all of the participants about the current state of the group they are in. Where are we right now?

Irony. My dream of a future for Unitarian Universalism, for this Fellowship, is a dream of bringing our attention back from futures and into the precise present. Right now we are a long way from right now. In three years, in ten years, in thirty years, I see us -- Unitarian Universalism nationally and globally and locally here in this Fellowship – moving along that long day’s journey into…Day.

When it comes to suspending assumptions, judgment, not repressing them, just looking at them, I have to admit that I am lousy at that. That’s exactly what my spiritual practice has been all about for the last 11 years, and like that student who asked for wisdom, what I got seems pretty disappointing. Yet the journey not only is more important than the destination, the journey IS the destination. I see Unitarian Universalism growing more and more serious about living into that paradox, cultivating genuine spiritual practice.

I see us becoming less and less interested in being a social club of the like-minded, and more and more hungry for work – for engaging the difficult, boring work of transformation into exactly what we are. I see more and more Unitarian Universalists making their congregations into places not that politely reinforce while not examining the assumptions people came in with, but places that facilitate the suspension of assumptions and the holding of them in our attention. I see Unitarian Universalists increasingly devoted to spiritual journaling, study of scriptures and wisdom writings, meditation, mindfulness, and meeting in small groups to do the work of deepening together.

That is where our faith’s growing edge is, and it is on that edge that my ministry is called to serve. The impulse to deepen, to get down to right now, to not cease from the labor of exploration, and, as T.S. Eliot said, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” – that is the impulse to spiritual work that I am here to serve, to nurture and guide with every understanding and misunderstanding I have. It is who I am. I can do no other.

We have a long way to go to arrive at where we are. It’s a journey that starts everywhere at once: in our hearts unfolding like flowers; in the joy of this day; in field and forest, mountain and meadow, calling us ever to that space of joy. There is a triumph song of life, and there is nothing we need do but hear it. And learn to sing it.

* * *
This is Part 4 of 4 of "Holy Dialog"

Previous: Part 3: "Attention, Everyone"
Beginning: Part 1: "Dialog"


Attention, Everyone

A dialog group is like the back porch scenario in not having a purpose defined in advance, but it needs to be a larger group of people. It needs to be, according to David Bohm, more than twenty. Why? Because smaller group don’t have enough conflict. In a smaller group we can all adjust to each other.
“If five or six people get together, they can usually adjust to each other so that they don’t say the things that upset each other – they get a ‘cozy adjustment.’
People can easily be very polite to each other and avoid the issues that may cause trouble....In a larger group...the politeness falls away pretty soon.” (Bohm, On Dialogue)
In that very conflict comes the unsettling – for, as Emerson said, it is only when we are unsettled that there is any hope for us.

Irony. In the conflict lies the possibility of wholeness that we can never have on our own.

Dialogue is not discussion. An individual’s thought is inherently fragmentary, and in discussion it stays fragmentary.
“Discussion is like “a ping-pong game where people are batting the ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points.” (Bohm, On Dialogue)
“In the dialogue, a very considerable degree of attention is required to keep track of the subtle implications of one’s own assumptive/reactive tendencies, while also sensing similar patterns in the group as a whole. Bohm emphasized that such attention, or awareness, is not a matter of accumulated knowledge or technique, nor does it have the goal of ‘correcting’ what may emerge in the dialogue. Rather, it is more of the nature of relaxed, nonjudgmental curiosity, its primary activity being to see things as freshly and clearly as possible. The nurturing of such attention, often bypassed in more utilitarian versions of dialogue, is a central element in Bohm’s approach to the process.” (from "Foreword" by Lee Nichol to David Bohm, On Dialogue
In Dialogue, each individual agrees to suspend judgment in the conversation. “Suspend” doesn’t mean you don’t have the judgment. It just means you don’t live there.
"...people in any group will bring to it assumptions, and as the group continues meeting, those assumptions will come up. What is called for is to suspend those assumptions, so that you neither carry them out nor suppress them. You don't believe them, nor do you disbelieve them.”
“For example, if you feel that someone is an idiot, to suspend you would (a) refrain from saying so outwardly and (b) refrain from telling yourself you should not think such things.”
You don’t suppress the thought, nor do you indulge it. You “suspend” it – as if it were hanging in the air in front of you, and you just look at it, watch it. And you watch what the effects of the thought are. The thought “you are an idiot,” is going to be attended by feelings: agitation, anger, resentment. Don’t suppress those either. And don’t indulge them either. Watch the feelings as they run their course. See them without identifying with them. Suspending an assumption or reaction means neither pushing it out of your mind nor following through on it, but fully attending to it. Dialogue, ultimately, is about attention.

It is fascinating to me that a theoretical quantum physicist – just by watching his own thought process as he tackled the problems of physics by himself and in groups – came up with just what the great spiritual traditions teach. You may have heard the Japanese story of the student who came to visit a renowned spiritual teacher, and found the master absorbed in calligraphy:

Japanese Kanji for "Chuumoku" (Attention)
The student asked, “Please, master, write for me something of great wisdom."
The master pulled over a clean sheet and his brush quickly wrote the word: "Attention."
The student said, "Is that all?"
The master wrote, "Attention. Attention."
The student became irritable.
"That doesn't seem profound or subtle to me."
So the master wrote, "Attention. Attention. Attention."
In frustration, the student demanded, "What does this word 'attention' mean?"
The master looked up, and for the first time spoke: "Attention means attention."

You might, like the student in the story, find this disappointing: dry and uninteresting. We would like the prospect of spiritual development to be exciting. Attention is pretty boring.

If you’re feeling boredom, that’s OK. Pay attention to the boredom, too.

* * *
This is Part 3 of 4 of "Holy Dialog"

Next: Part 4: "'To Arrive Where We Started'"
Previous: Part 2: "Remember That We Are Insane"
Beginning: Part 1: "Dialog"


Remember That We Are Insane

There’s a little parable that has stayed with me ever since I was 17 and first read it on the sleeve of a comedy album by George Carlin -- his 1972 "Class Clown" album:
“In ancient times there was a country whose harvest came in, and it was poisoned. Those who ate of it became insane. 'There is but one thing to do,' said the King. 'We must eat the grain to survive, but there must be those among us who will remember that we are insane.'"
A wonderful parable for a comedian, isn’t it? Carlin’s life was dedicated to remembering that we are insane.

In the same way that we have to eat, we have to think. We can’t avoid it – and it wouldn’t be a good idea if we could. But can we remember, as we think, that we’re getting it wrong with every thought?

British-American physicist David Bohm emphasized that true dialog can’t have a purpose. If we're getting something wrong with every thought, it might be helpful to just talk without a purpose that we'd only be mucking up. Dialog may end up accomplishing a lot of things, but we can’t start out with an idea of: “Here’s our problem, and how are we going to fix it.” If we do this, we’re locked into thoughts about what the problem is, and what a solution would look like -- thoughts that are always awry.

In dialog, we bring our thoughts, but try not to be locked into any of them. Everything is up for grabs in the free flow of ideas. A dialog group is not like a problem-solving group, a strategy group, a planning group. It’s more like people sitting on the back porch sipping lemonade and gabbing about nothing in particular. In that context, anything can come up, and a thought at any level can be called into question without making people impatient to get on to the point. Indeed, whatever is being offered is the point.
“As soon as we try to accomplish a useful purpose or goal, we will have an assumption behind it as to what is useful, and that assumption is going to limit us. . . . In the dialogue group we are not going to decide what to do about anything. This is crucial. Otherwise we are not free.”
It’s rather like watching the Olympics. Did you watch any of the recent London Olympics? The athletes certainly have a very clear purpose, but those of us watching, we don’t do so to solve any particular problem we have. We just want to see something new about human possibility. The gymnastics, the synchronized swimming – the speed of the runners and the muscle of the weight-lifters – it’s just amazing. We want to see amazing possibilities.

I was watching a little bit of Olympics this week with LoraKim, and I said, “Did I tell you my idea for an Olympic event they should add?”

She said, “You did. You first told me in the summer of 2000, the summer after we had just gotten married, and then you told me again in 2004, and again in 2008. Every time the Olympics come on, you tell me.”

What a memory, that woman! OK, so she’s heard it. But I’m pretty sure, gentle reader, that you haven’t.

My idea for an Olympic event is: The Team Pentathlon: a Pentathlon of team sports. The same five people have to play together as a team in five very different team sports. They have to play basketball, and five-on-five versions of volleyball, water polo, team handball, and beach soccer. The same five people have to work together in all those sports. I love imagining what that would do to a group of people – the kind of connections and sense of each other they would have to develop in order to function effectively in five such different sports. Obviously, the players would be very focused on a purpose – winning – but what appeals to me is the thought that something without purpose would emerge: a knowing of each others’ movement so well that a flow of connection and oneness transcended their individuality as they merged into one thing. They would develop, I imagine, a oneness so palpable that even the British announcers would be compelled to say, “the team is” instead of “the team are.”

Ah, but five is much too few for David Bohm’s notion of a dialogue group. If you are remembering your experiences of gabbing aimlessly on back porches, perhaps you are thinking that those might have been relaxing and pleasant times but they didn’t exactly seem transformative to you. David Bohm noticed that, too.

* * *
This is Part 2 of 4 of "Holy Dialog"

Next: Part 3: "Attention, Everyone"
Previous: Part 1: "Dialog"




Irony is: wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt manufactured by a huge multinational corporation.

Irony is: the name for the fear of long words is
Irony is: the sign that announces:
“Psychic Fair canceled due to unforeseen circumstances.”
And irony is this monolog on the subject of dialog.

Dialog comes the two Greek parts: “dia” and “logos.” Logos is the words or thoughts.
Logos is the root of “logic.” We also see logos as “study of” in words like biology, geology, anthropology – and scientology. Interestingly, logos is the term that the Gospel of John, in its original Greek is using in those famous opening lines.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.”
What is translated as “Word” is this term logos. John is saying:
“In the beginning was the logos, the logos was with God, and the logos was God.”
John was clearly deeply influenced by Greek philosophy which developed a concept of logos as the divine principle of reason that gives order to the universe and links the human mind to the mind of God. Words, logic, study, thought: the divine principle of reason. The basic order of the universe parallels, or models, or is the manifestation of, or just IS reason, thought. And this logos, you know, says John, isn’t just WITH God. The logos IS God.

There’s a lot about the world that maybe doesn’t seem so rationally ordered. But let’s get down to the real basics here – as the Comedian Lily Tomlin does when she quips:
“Time is just nature’s way of making sure everything doesn’t happen at once.”
I’d have to say that’s a good idea. "Good job, logos -- making sure everything doesn’t happen at once."

Dia – log, then, is dia – logos. “Dia” does not mean two. It means between or among. Dialog is the mystic logos that comes into being between us, among us: the shared logos.
David Bohm, 1917-1992 

What Lake Chalice would like to do in this series on dialog is note some ideas about dialog developed by David Bohm. David Bohm was a very interesting man: an American-British quantum physicist who died in 1992 at age 74. One of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th-century, he thought a lot about very difficult things to think about – like theoretical physics, and also the nature of thought itself. In trying to get thinking to square with the ultimate nature of reality, as explored in physics, Bohm noticed that thinking itself is an inherently limited medium. Maybe our minds somehow reflect a divine logos, but they do so in a very distorting, limited way.

We are always getting it wrong. If I think somebody did something wrong – I’m wrong. If I think somebody did something right – I’m wrong. This physicist, David Bohm, echoes what the Korean spiritual teacher Seung Sahn often said:
“Open your mouth and you’re wrong.”
The truth is before thinking. So spiritual teachers, like me, will typically instruct: plunge into silence. Train ourselves to be present to the silence that underlies and surrounds the noise of thinking.

David Bohm’s approach is – at least on the surface – a bit different. Bohm says the cure for the inherent error of any thought is encounter with someone else’s thought.
In other words, dialog. Of course, other people’s thought is just as wrong as mine is. The point isn’t to arrive at some better opinion to settle into, but simply to unsettle our opinions. He’s not saying get rid of your opinions. Just: unsettle them.

As our own Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
“People wish to be settled. Only insofar as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
The great value of dialog isn’t that we get better or broader opinions, but that we come unsettled from any opinion, unsettled from any definite thought.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Holy Dialog"

Next: Part 2: "Remember That We Are Insane"


Standing Against and Noticing

Standing against the powerful creep of the market: the nonprofit sector, and the public sector.

If you’re active in a nonprofit organization – including churches, synagogues, temples – you are marking out a part of your life that isn’t entirely under the sway of the market. (Of course, it’s not entirely independent of markets either: your church, too, has bills to pay.) In our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Gainesville, we gather only to be “a diverse religious community committed to lifelong spiritual growth and compassionate service to each other, our community, and the earth.” We do have a staff to pay, utility bills, and a building to keep up. We don’t have any investors to pay off.

Just by showing up at a place of worship, you say: there are some things that aren’t about making profits for shareholders. So show up there. That’s my first request of you in standing against the creep of market logic into areas better taken up collectively, in a sense of communally shared responsibility.

Let me ask you to consider doing something else as well: take this up in your journals. If you don’t keep a journal, please consider starting one because journaling is vital practice for ongoing spiritual growth. Start noticing and recording in your journal where in your life you notice market creep.

These changes in the last 30 years happened slowly, without a deliberate decision that we wanted the market in all these aspects of our lives. They happened in tiny increments that we didn’t notice at the time. So let me ask you to simply start noticing. Where do you notice buying and selling of things that didn’t used to be bought and sold, of things that maybe shouldn’t be bought and sold? Where do you notice that interests of stockholders are exerting a subtle influence on what is going on. Try keeping count of how many commercials for a political candidate you see, how many direct-to-consumer ads for prescription drugs you see.

Write down how you feel about this. Maybe some instances are positive. Maybe other instances are not. (For instance, does it seem to you that prescription drug sales should be a matter of doctor recommendations rather than advertisement-generated consumer demand?) For the next week, pause every day to jot down what you have noticed about the market entering areas of your life where maybe you’d rather nonmarket values mattered more.

Make a note of what were those nonmarket values were. What enterprises do you find that it would be appropriate for us collectively to do them through our city, county, state, and national governments? What enterprises would better be carried out through nonprofit organizations? Start noticing that particular aspect of this world we live in as it has become.

From that noticing and our own best reflecting will emerge the wisdom we need for beginning to organize to better define the limits of the market sphere.


David Brooks observation about the rise and dominance of success, as defined by the market, over other moral systems of valuation: see Brooks 2013.06.13 Religion and Inequality.

* * *
This is part 6 of "Not For Sale"

Previous: Part 5: "Two (Not Three) Cheers for Markets"
Beginning: Part 1: "Marketplace Creep"


Two (Not Three) Cheers for Markets

Let us give the market its due. As a way to distribute and exchange resources, the market is a wonderful improvement over everything that came before it and most of what has emerged since. This improvement is not merely economic; it is also moral. The market provides a basic fairness. In the market, it doesn’t matter if we agree on anything besides price. Your ethnicity, your religion, your crazy political opinions don’t matter. You pay the money, you get the groceries. Markets are nonjudgmental. They respect your individual preferences, whatever they are. Through markets, the human species learned at last how to engage cooperatively with people we would otherwise despise. We learned to set aside the differences that divided us and just “do business.”

Insofar as “market” amounts to “voluntary (on all sides) distributions through trade” then market approaches are presumed preferable to any nonmarket (and therefore at least somewhat coercive) approach. (Though markets may themselves involve economically coerced actors, a.k.a. "the poor" – and in a variety of circumstances the regulatory need outweighs the presumption in favor of markets.)

When people buy and sell from each other, they don’t have to fight each other for stuff. Indeed, if you’re providing me with goods or services, I have a vested intererest in you staying healthy so you can continue to provide me. Between nations, the rise of markets reduced the temptation to go to war. As the 19th-century French economist Frederic Bastiat supposedly said (and, at least, would have agreed):
"When goods don’t cross borders, armies will."
When the US passed fair housing legislation in the 1960s, that was a triumph of justice through an insistence that market logic prevail. If your house is for sale or rent, you may not refuse it to someone based on race. Market logic, which cares only about whether the asking price can be met, must trump racial prejudice, we said – and that was an important step toward justice.

In some areas, we need still need more market logic, not less. Market logic doesn’t care about whether a construction worker, or an agricultural worker, or any worker, happened to be born north or south of a line some generals and politicians drew in the sand across the southwest desert a little over 150 years ago. But our immigration policies skew that market logic, and it isn’t fair.

So let us, by all means, give the market its due. We may nevertheless ask whether the market has crept into areas where it is best kept out. It may be fine for private companies working to maximize shareholder profit to run our system of filling the shelves at the stores where we shop. But do we really want private, for-profit companies running our health, our education, our public safety, our national security, our criminal justice, our environmental protection, our recreation? They didn’t used to. I grew up in the 60s and 70s when all those things were public goods and were matters of public policy and nonprofit organizations.

Whatever the market is in charge of distributing goes to those who can pay for it. If there’s enough for everyone – like basic food – then that’s fine. If there’s enough supply for the price to be low enough so that everyone can afford what they need, then, fine, let the market handle it. Also, for things in short supply that people don’t need – like Lamborghini sports cars – let the market handle that, too. Only the rich will get them, but nobody needs them.

Are there are some things that we think ought to be available to everyone, not just the rich? Healthcare, education, public parks, police protection, perhaps?

Are there some duties that we think ought to fall to everyone, not just the less rich? Paying taxes, military service, the same jail cell everyone else gets who has committed the same kind of crime, perhaps?

There’s something else about markets. The market is the perfect cynic. A cynic, as Oscar Wilde said, is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The market knows only one value: price.

When this country, after much struggle, finally ended formal slavery, we recognized that a human being is a value beyond price. Human beings cannot be bought and sold and owned. Children and spouses are, for many of us, life’s greatest value, and we would not want them bought and sold.

Where the market creeps in, it corrodes any other value. When you are paid for reading a book, it’s harder to think of reading as having any other value. The market thus corrupts what it touches.

As LoraKim’s adventure in knee replacement and recovery has dragged on through many more monthes than we’d anticipated, she and I have felt a heaviness of despair from depending upon services from a healthcare system where such huge sums of money go from our insurer to hospitals and doctors. Our insurance is reasonably good, yet it’s breathtaking and saddening to see how much our insurer pays for a few days in the hospital. Even when we aren’t personally paying much, we feel like pawns in a vast scheme of money transfer. The scheme has been set up to maximize that money flow, and our medical care is merely the means to that end. Participating in and depending on that system feels degrading – a diminishment of our intrinsic nonmarket humanity.

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This is Part 5 of "Not For Sale"

Next: Part 6: "Standing Against and Noticing"
Previous: Part 4: "What Shall It For-Profit Us?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Marketplace Creep"