Keeping My Brother
Probably the most unforgettable character of my high school years was my principal, Professor Lewis E. Nestell. He was simultaneously loved and feared by all. I was called into his office on more than one occasion to explain something I shouldn’t have done, and was never sure he believed me. In addition to those scary moments, there are a couple other things that stand out in my memory about Prof. I remember that he, who doubled as our American History teacher, made us memorize the United States presidents in order. I still remember them mostly, though I have to strain to remember the ones since then. Another thing I remember, and in a totally separate way, was his reading to us from a book called “The University of Hard Knocks,” which we all enjoyed without admitting it. It was a book about life’s little lessons and he could say, just for a credibility backup, “See, it’s in the book, not me saying it, so it must be true.”
I Continued to Learn
I always felt that I owed Prof something for those little lessons. I have since imagined that he expected me to look for my own application of those lessons, and I imagined that if he were here today, he would ask me: “Now son (he never really called me son), what have you done these last 50-odd years?” Where have you been? What have you studied? And most importantly, “What have you learned?” I don’t mean little things like learning to tie your shoes, saying your ABCs, or correctly applying the binomial formula. I mean what have you learned in this life that makes you of value to the world in which you live and that makes the world glad you’re here?”
My Brother’s Keeper
So now I turn from my imaginary conversation with Prof and tell you what I would have, should have told him: “I have learned that I am, indeed, my brother’s keeper.” My brother is every other human being that lives on our planet. I have learned that I am not above or below them, but one with them. I may not share skin color, geography, or culture, but we are all one people. All men are our brothers; all women are our sisters. From Bible stories of my youth I remember the Genesis story of Cain and Abel. When the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother?” Cain’s rather snippy reply was, “Wow, I don’t know; haven’t seen him lately; why do you ask me? AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER?” Now, we know little about how the conversation went from there, but by implication God’s answer was “Yes, you ARE your brother’s keeper; live with it.”
My Own Nature and Nurture
I am who I am because of the what, who, when, how, and where I was born. I am rather tallish and have what used to be brown hair and hazely blue eyes. I have talents in math and music, though my violin playing is a little offensive. Call these things consequences of birth, or an “accident” of birth, if you will, that I was born in the affluence of the United States of America of loving parents and grandparents who provided for my care and inspired me to a good education. I was not born to an addict mother in the midst of poverty, disease, and illiteracy by the side of the road in some third world country. We must recognize that luck, fate, predestination, fortune, or misfortune are words you can apply as you like.
We must recognize that there are those who were not born into a world of dessert every day, or braces for their teeth, or a car when they turned 16, or a college education, or even basic human needs. Most of us here can be thankful that we are not victims, but are in control of our own destinies.
I figure that all of us in this room are reasonably comfortable with our lives, satisfied with the skin we’re in, and that we wouldn’t want to be anyone else. Maybe you even feel sorry for everybody else because they’re not you.
Alright, here’s what’s important to remember: The difference between you and everybody else are governed by circumstances, by accidents, by coincidences. Who you are is not only based on the DNA you inherited, but is determined by emotions and relationships that flow into the big wide river that is your life. Whether you are tall or not, bald or not, stout, skinny, or many of the other dimensions that define you, you have little control over that. And whether you’re good at math, or a better reader than some, or how your memory works, you started out with those genes that your mother and father mixed for you, and over which you have no control since you cannot choose your parents. So why are you who you are rather than your brother, or your sister, or the man in the third row with the weird suspenders?
So now we’re going to do an exercise. In a moment, not now, I’m going to ask you to stand up and look around. When you do, I want you to find a person who is as opposite of you as you can imagine. Here are the criteria; get as many of these as possible: age, height, weight, gender, sense of fashion, skin color, financial status, sexual orientation, and if you know for sure, someone who has conflicting ideologies, and, maybe especially, someone you’ve been critical of for one reason or another. Think about a person with a physical disability, a person who can only experience the world through limited senses. Now, stand up for a moment and look around. You might even want to think of a person born in a different time and place, outside this little box we’re sitting in. Don’t stare, just glance around, choose someone, and then return your eyes back to your own face.
Okay, now sit back down and try to imagine that you ARE that person. Close your eyes and take a moment. [Pause in silence.]
Now: why are you who YOU are and not who that person is. And what if you were? How would your life be different?
I’ve been retired for thirteen years now, and my life stays very busy. One thing my wife and I did for a number of years as a community “give-back” is that we volunteered every Monday at the Harvest Hope. My duty as an intake person was to interview people and determine their eligibility for services.
Among many, many cases just like this one I’m going to example to you is the story of 55-year-old Thelma Notrich, a grandmother who lived off a meager disability check to support herself, three of her grown unemployed children, and four of her grands and great-grands that had been dumped on her. Her husband disappeared years ago. She has no healthcare insurance, and two of her sons don’t live with her because they’re in prison. She moved slowly into my cubicle on arthritic legs and asked for enough food to supplement what little she could get with food stamps. Her hair was unkempt, her clothes worn and dirty. She led a life constantly on the verge of starvation, frustration, and tears.
Of this woman we are tempted to say, “What’s the matter with her?” “Why doesn’t she get a good money-making job? She could at least go get a good education so she could get that good money-making job.”
Think about your own daily life. You come home exhausted after a long day at work. When you get home, you throw off your coat and shoes and lounge on the couch in front of a television with a cold drink in your hand. You feel relaxed in the comfort of your nice home surrounded by your loving spouse and children. Now imagine yourself at the end of that same day — but you’re homeless. You still haven’t found a job. There is no couch for you to sit on, not even a roof over your head except a piece of cardboard that you found in the dumpster near the bus station. Your overcoat is shabby; you have holes in your shoes and you’re hungry. You’re poor and you’re homeless and you will be tomorrow too.
Grandmother Thelma did not WANT to be poor; she did not ASK to have her husband disappear and her grandchildren to be dumped on her, but that’s the ticket she drew. The homeless guy did not WANT to have holes in his shoes, but that was his luck of his draw.
We’re NOT Created Equal
News flash: all men are NOT created equal; women are NOT created equal! We are all who we are because of the geography and the genetics of our birth. By chance we are born with silver spoons or food stamps. We are born with certain predispositions and wirings of our brains over which we have NO control. We are raised in environments over which we have LITTLE control. We have made choices based on those genes and on that environment and on those other elusive variables that are a result AND a product of those choices. Someone who has a different set of those variables makes a different set of choices in this grand lottery of life. So just for the purposes of this discussion, consider that person you’ve just identified in your look-around and shift somebody else’s reality to inside your own consciousness.
Linda and I were on a vacation not too long ago when we happened to have dinner with a man with whom I stumbled into a “religio-political” debate. I was making the point that Jesus would undoubtedly have been a Democrat because of his compassion towards the poor. In his abruptness he declared that there was no reason for people to be poor, and he went on to describe his own childhood about how his parents were so poor that the bank once repossessed their cardboard box, or something like that. Anyhow, he spoke of his journey from being poor to being successful by saying, “I had to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, and if I can do it, anybody can!” I looked hard at him for a few seconds, just long enough for him to think he had won the debate, and said slowly and firmly, “But what if you don’t have bootstraps?”
Each of us has a severely different set of life experiences, our individual paths through this conscious brevity we call life. Our contexts for determining right or wrong or even truth may not even be fathomable to each other. From inside our own eyes we can’t understand, for example, why anybody would be a republican or a democrat, or Buddhist or Methodist, or a Unitarian.
Alright, so here’s the thing I’m suggesting: For those of us in this “modern man” species, we have to consider that we are all one people. Consider it a spiritual universe where we are all connected and are all responsible for one another. Maybe we could develop a community consciousness like a colony of ants, or from Star Trek the interconnected race called “The Borg.” We have to operationalize the golden rule common to all major religions. The Bible says “As ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.” The existentialists believe it, the humanists believe it, the Jews believe it. Certainly Unitarians believe it. If you were hungry, wouldn’t you want somebody to bring you food? If you were in pain, wouldn’t you want someone to comfort you? If your world wasn’t working for you, would you want someone to at least understand?
We must fulfill the admonishment from Matthew 25 that says “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” From Muslim scriptures: “Show kindness to . . . kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and the neighbor that is a stranger . . . From the writings of Buddha: “Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering.”
You are the fortunate; you are the lucky, you are the one of whom the Christian Bible says “to whom much is given, of him shall much be expected.” Contribute extra to the canned food drive. Volunteer at Transitions.
The more fortunate among us cannot be so arrogant as to think that for some preordained or deserved reason we have been more blessed than someone else.
This talk is not intended to ANSWER questions, but in the UU spirit, to CREATE them for your own answers. So try these: Do you realize, when you look at someone else, that that person is indeed your brother or your sister, and that that person COULD BE YOU? Then: to what extent are you your brother’s keeper, your sister’s keeper? That is to say: How much of yourself, your time, your resources, your understandings and compassions, do you share with your brother, your sister?
The questions are mine to you. Your answers are your own. GO IN PEACE