Some years ago I met a man who, over a single cup of ginger-mint tea, shook my deepest assumptions about the process of moral conversation. His name was Samuel Prana.
I had been giving lectures -- at universities, churches, and civic groups -- about religion and the environmental crisis. I’d begin by describing some ecological problems: not just in abstract terms that people could shrug off, but in ways that would make it real. For example, I would talk about “body burden” -- the hundreds of toxic chemicals you can find in the blood of newborn babies; or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a kind of thick stew of plastic waste that ocean currents have drawn together -- it’s now bigger than the United States. What do such things mean, I would ask, for a life of faith and morality? Then I would show how religious thinkers, leaders, and lay people were all changing their traditions, coming into a new understanding of our responsibilities to the earth, and becoming environmental activists. Along the way I would look at some moral questions that affect us all, religious or not: how much consumption is justified, can a capitalist society ever be sustainable, and is the hope that we could truly respect other species -- like the hope that we could live by the golden rule -- just an impossible ideal. Then I would end with a plea that we face our grief and fear, not give in to despair since we couldn’t really say what the future would bring, and choose to be the kind of people who honored and respected all of life, even if we didn’t know whether we would be successful in ending the madness of the way we were living.
It was a pretty good talk, if I say so myself: passionate, informative, inspiring. With the odd joke to keep people listening.
It was after I did one of these at a local university -- something to do with Earth Day, I think -- that Samuel came up and introduced himself.
He was a tall man, very thin, in a clean but much-worn black suit, white shirt, and gray tie. He had the largest eyes I had ever seen -- a blue so dark they were nearly black, rarely blinking, and fixed on my face with a concentration that was almost frightening. His face had enormously deep lines, around his eyes and mouth, across his forehead. Whatever else was true about him, he hadn’t had an easy life.
He talked so low I had to strain to hear him. And I thought he had a foreign accent, perhaps from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but it was hard to tell. Something about him was odd. He didn’t have the “let’s talk about this like colleagues” attitude of a professor, and with his gray hair and wrinkles he certainly wasn’t a student. Somehow I knew he wasn’t a typical ordinary-citizen-interested-in-the-topic either. There was none of the “Please enlighten me” look that I sometimes get after a talk, nor the one that says “I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about” (global warming, why religion should be abolished, my daughter who teaches recycling in elementary school...) “and I’m going to tell you all about it.”
Maybe it was the way he looked at me that made me pay close attention, rather than going into my usual “the brilliant but very approachable professor will now answer all your questions” routine.
The look in Samuel’s eyes was one of -- well, it’s not easy to say, exactly. Perhaps generosity is the word. He was here, those intensely focused eyes said, to help me. To help me see something I’d missed and learn something I needed to learn. At the same time there was nothing fanatical or obsessed about him. He was totally self-confident in a relaxed way that led me to suspect that whatever he believed he had thought about very carefully, very intelligently, for a very long time.
So instead of running off back home I invited him to go out for a cup of tea, something I never do after lectures.
As I settled down with a large ginger-mint tea from the coffee house, Samuel, who had accepted without hesitation my offer to pay, sipped his Hazelnut latte. We began to talk. Or, rather, he started to talk, and I to listen.
“There’s no doubt you’re a bright fellow, Gottlieb,” he began, using just my last name in the way Eastern Europeans often do, “but you’re missing something. Maybe the most important thing. Certainly you care about what you are saying, it could be too much. But yes it is important that you care. Except ... in the end there is a big hole in what you do.”
“And what’s that?” I asked, with a tolerant smile. After all, I prided myself on having thought of just about everything. Not every detail, of course -- there were countless facts about environmental problems, church resolutions, and international environmental agreements that I didn’t know. And never would. And there were some tough ethical issues that would stay open, as well: how much consumerist consumption was reasonable and how much was, well, too much? How to choose between preserving an Old Growth forest and helping people into decent jobs. That sort of thing. But I had always prided myself on being a “big picture” kind of guy and I was pretty sure I knew what large-scale perspectives were out there. I had a handle on how various religions and different political groups understood the world in general and environmental problems in particular. I could tell you about the conservative opposition to global warming policies, the religious critique of liberalism, and the five ways economic globalization destroyed both community and ecology. I knew who was right, who was wrong, and who was inconsistent. Who avoided reality in favor of cheap spiritual clichés and who used political correctness to justify violence, who forgot the economy when thinking about God, or God when thinking about technology, or differences between owners and workers, or people in the United States and people in Bangladesh. I had my reasons, lots of them, all lined up and ready to go.
“What you are missing,” declared Samuel slowly, reaching out with a long, bony finger to tap at my arm, “is that it really does not make so much difference who is right.”
“What?” I demanded, incredulous, pulling back from him. Maybe this gentleman wasn’t so smart after all.
“No,” he answered, “what is really important is not being right, it is how we can live together even if some of us are right and some are wrong, and others are half right and half wrong, and the rest have not made up their minds. How will we do that?”
By the bewildered expression on my face he probably realized I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.
“Look here,” I replied (being a bit confused I got a bit more pretentious, and I figured I’d take the easy examples first). “Wasn’t it “right” that democracy should replace inherited political power? That the slaves should have been freed? That women got the vote and the right not to be abused by men? When people take moral stands, as opposed to just acting out of habit, or because they think something feels nice, aren’t they saying at the same time “This is right, this is the way things should be”?
“All well and good,” he replied, clearly unimpressed. “And also painfully obvious. This is what philosophers have always done. Looked for the right answer. It started with Socrates, who did so well in Plato’s dialogues that the people he argued with always seem not to know what is going on. Most of the time all they can say is, “I see, Socrates.” And Plato set the stage for what followed. Thinker after thinker telling us that he -- unlike all the ones who had preceded him, of course -- had the real truth. He would give us the only rational way to think, the only sure morality, the ultimate meaning of human existence. And so on. And for our religious people it was even worse. The biblical God tells the Jews -- ”Do it this way, no argument!” And so we also will be like God: we will tell you what is right and wrong, what is the blessing and what is the curse.
“So everyone does this: the preachers, political activists, and talk show hosts; every newspaper editorial and presidential press conference. My position over yours, my values to dominate society, my view of God and heaven and ethics.”
His voice had risen a bit, and he paused to cough, and then take a breath. “So,” I asked gently, “What’s wrong with that?”
“What is wrong is that it does not answer the question I just asked you: How are we to live together, talk together, when we do not agree? How can we speak to one another in a way that realizes there will always be differences and recognizes and learns from our differences? How do we do that, if the main thing on our minds is always: “I am right, you are wrong”?”
I stroked my beard and pressed my lips together. The professor being thoughtful. “But Samuel,” I answered, shifting unconsciously into my calm-teacherly tone, since I thought this was just a common undergraduate error that needed an expert corrective, “don’t you realize that certain differences simply can’t be accepted? For me it is fine for people to worship in different buildings using different prayer books. But if someone wants to force everyone else to worship in his building using his prayer book, how are we to accept that difference? If the religious conservative refuses to have his daughter educated, and we have a law saying all children must be educated equally, what can we do?
“We can disagree on where the universe came from: created by a God, product of a Big Bang, woven out of the entrails of a spider. You have your myths and I’ll have mine. But what if someone has a myth that says some group -- say, the Jews -- are responsible for all the problems his country faces, that Jews are immoral monsters with the ethical status of germs, and must all be killed. How am I to coexist with the man who wants to kill me? You see, the lion and the lamb can accept each other’s differences, but if they lay down together only one of them is going to get up afterwards, and it won’t be the lamb.”
I paused, pleased with my clever turn of phrase about lions and lambs, and smiled encouragingly at him. It was a common mistake, after all.
“Really,” replied Samuel, and he sighed heavily, “I would have expected better. This is just the standard philosophical refutation of relativism and false tolerance. And like most standards, it is true -- but only as far as it goes. We have to have certain agreed-on values and laws. Certain kinds of rules make others impossible. Certain views are very lethal. Believe me,” his intense eyes got even more intense, he rubbed the back of his neck as if thinking of some old pain, “I know all about the stories that would kill a person for being different, better than you do.
“But all this is beside the point. It is not what I’m talking about.
“So sometimes all we can do is fight the other side, or make laws against them.” He reached over to tap me on the arm again. “But what else can we do? If we are not to go to war with them, Gottlieb, if we are not going to put them in jail -- and always remember, if it is possible to put them in jail, it is possible that you, too, would end up there! If we are not to compel them, then what are we to do? How can we talk to them? What kind of people do we have to be to do that?”
He sipped some more of his coffee, got his breath back, and began again.
“Please do not talk to me about all the unreasonable, crazy, violent people. For always remember this: Wherever you draw the line, and put some people outside it -- call them Nazis, fundamentalists, al-Qaida, imperialists, the ruling class, global corporations, military dictators, communists, radicals, tree-huggers, meat-eaters -- wherever you draw the line there will be some people still on your side of the line.
“Tell me: how will you talk to them when you disagree? The more frightened you get that the people on your side maybe are really on the other side, the more you will want to prove them wrong. All of a sudden these people also will be people who must be controlled, overcome, shut out, coerced. You will draw your line closer and closer until it is just you and seven other people who think exactly like you.
“So no matter how much you tell me that ‘Some people can’t be talked to, it’s foolish to try, you just have to defeat them,’ the problems I’m talking about will return again and again. What will you have if you don’t learn something else? Endless war -- with guns, with words, with what is in your heart -- is that the way you want to live?
“And the other thing you have forgotten is this: unless we learn how to talk to people we think are wrong, we cannot be right ourselves. After all, we learn morality as we learn science -- from other people who teach us ways to think about what we think, to question our beliefs, to test our conclusions. That is what all this moral reasoning is, no? We feel strongly about something -- homosexual marriage, war in Iraq, global warming, free enterprise -- and then we try to evaluate what we feel: Are we consistent? Have we looked at the facts? Are we forgetting the consequences on other people of what we think is such a great plan? Are we demanding too much of people… or too little? Are we privileging the way we do things in our little corner of the world, or our time, and forgetting that it could be different somewhere else -- or that it was not always like this?
“If we do not hear such questions, put to us by people who are very different from ourselves, how are we to be as sure that actually we are right--and not just continuing some mistaken prejudice? Those stories you love to tell about political progress: how wonderful it was to end slavery or give women the vote. Every time you tell that story you are saying -- “Those people on the wrong side did not think, did not listen, and ended up living lives of cruelty, selfishness, oppression.”
“How can you know you are not doing it yourself, right now, if you do not listen? Did not every one of those oppressors fail to listen? Could you be doing the same thing?
“Look at it this way, Gottlieb: of course we can end up with new laws, with violent revolutions, with assassinations even. We can mock the politically incorrect, or the foolishly liberal, or the narrow religious or the orthodox seculars. We can end up there, certainly.
“But that is not where we should start. So I ask you -- What do you know about what you do first, before you stop the conversation and make the people on the other side obey?”
He stopped, so out of breath I wondered if he had a lung problem. He gave me another intense look, daring me to offer another facile philosophical retort.
But I couldn’t. I was stumped. I drank some tea to give myself time to think.
Oh there were some pretty trite answers I could have given, more of the “standard” philosophy sort of thing. Let’s all be rational, avoid self-contradiction, take established facts into account. If we are talking about morality, we need to think about how our actions affect other people; and we need to find some way to think ourselves out of the naturally self-centered perspective that people naturally take. We have to distinguish between scientific claims, which can be tested; and religious claims, which cannot, at least not in the same way. We have to think about principles to direct our actions and the effects of what we do on human happiness and what virtues make sense for human beings. When we talk about justice we have to be careful about gender bias, racial bias, cultural bias, and -- well, you get the idea.
But having said all that, and even taken it seriously to some extent, well then we could get down to what really mattered: showing that our beliefs and values were correct.
Samuel was saying something different. Openness was not just another move in the game for him, openness was the game, because without openness we couldn’t be changed by other people, and couldn’t really live with them. We would just try to make sure they came around to our side. And ultimately we couldn’t even really learn about how ethical we were, how committed to a real justice or just all the time falling back on some knee-jerk, self-congratulatory story about our own moral correctness.
Of course to get Samuel off your back you could invoke all the people who just wouldn’t be part of a conversation. You might want to talk, but they would put a machine gun on the table and tell you what to do. Over all this, you might say, was the shadow of Hitler -- the one we cannot talk to.
“Again,” answered Samuel, a little impatience in his voice, “you miss the point. Do not go rushing to Hitler, for God’s sake. Is Hitler right around the corner, breathing down your neck? No, Hitler is in the past, Hitler is finished and known.
“Are you finished? Have you nothing to learn? Are you willing to respect other people to the point where you find some truth in what they say? If you cannot, how will you be in a community with them? And how will you learn what you need to learn about yourself?
“The key to moral conversation is that you and the other people are not finished. You are in the process of becoming. That is why you talk. Not just to pound out the same old ideas over and over but to change, to grow. That is what makes a moral community. That is what you do before you turn to the laws and guns and the shaming of all the ones you despise.
I was silent. And silence is perhaps the greatest acknowledgment a professional argument maker like me can make to a superior… argument? Well, Samuel hadn’t really made an argument, but what he had done was cast the whole process of moral conversation in a new light. A goal not of finding the truth, but of mutual understanding. And to have that understanding, we had to have a certain kind of relationship. And therefore the relationship, not the elusive truth, was the key. How can I be committed to my moral values, and stay in touch with people with very different ones? How can I think not just for myself, but for the relationship as well? In a way it was simple, painfully simple. How had I missed it all these years?
“Realize,” said Samuel, putting on his coat and getting ready to leave. “I am surely not the first person to think like this. Women philosophers have been talking for years about empathy -- really trying to understand what other people feel as a basis for knowing how to act. There’s the idea that democracy is about citizens communicating with each other, and not just people voting as separate individuals. Gandhi began from a position of moral humility. It is not for me to judge others, he would say, because I am so morally weak myself. The whole Civil Rights Movement in your country used to talk about something they called the “beloved community” -- a time when love and respect shaped all our relationships with others. Buddhist teachers have warned us against being attached to our beliefs, as if these verbal formulas were some kind of immovable mooring spot for a windblown selfhood. The Talmud recorded the wrong positions as well as the right ones. Truth and reconciliation commissions ask us to listen to each other’s stories, even if those stories are about terrible violence against our families. Professional peacemakers do the same.
“All I am suggesting is that you take those values and put them to work here, in all these encounters you have when you think about morality, about what life means, in this terrible time.”
And then he was gone.
Over the next few years we met once in a while. He always came without warning -- at a public lecture, during my office hours, even a few times after sitting, quietly, without taking off his coat, in the back row of one of my classes. We would go over this idea of his, this idea of moral conversation in a moral community, over and over again. It was attractive in so many ways, but so alien. I still wanted to win the argument, to be right. No matter how much I tried to think in a “spiritual, nonviolent” way (as I’d come to describe it) about moral conversation, I’d slip back into the old style. Samuel would point this out to me, over and over again, tapping me on the forearm for emphasis, sipping his coffee, sighing over what a blockhead I was. And I’d agree, and go back to where I started.
At times I would wonder how you could be open and still have a serious moral position. Wasn’t Samuel just asking me to be wishy-washy -- weak and unprincipled? What good was that to anyone -- especially in a time of global environmental crisis, ethnic violence, vast inequalities of wealth, and a population so miserable that they took endless quantities of legal and illegal drugs just to get through the day? We desperately needed answers, a correct analysis, and unshakable moral values.
And then I remembered something from my youth, something I still think about with embarrassment. For a time in the late 1970s I was part of a tiny political group -- fifteen of us actually -- called “Jews for Justice.” We were a collection of left-wing Jews who both supported Israel’s right to exist and condemned its occupation of Palestinian land. We opposed anti-Semitism as well as colonialism, suicide bombing by terrorists as much as Israeli militarism. The established Jewish community hated us for supporting a two-state solution and criticizing Israel. And the Left hated us for supporting Israel’s right to exist and for criticizing anti-Semitism. We were dedicated, passionate, concerned, highly educated, and very emotionally immature. Eventually differences within the group started to become our whole focus. One side placed too much emphasis on anti-Semitism. One side not enough. One side thought too much about the Occupation. One side only thought about terrorism. And on and on it went -- more anger, more distrust, less and less listening, everyone sure they were right and the other side wrong. No wishy-washy types here, never fear. And then it got so bad we split up -- into one group of eight and one of seven. We were going to solve the endless, intractable conflict between the Arabs and Israel -- and we couldn’t even get along with each other.
Wasn’t that just what Samuel was talking about?
For a long time I didn’t see him. He and his ideas faded from my mind, as I occupied myself with teaching and writing, political arguments and moral judgments. I worried about the environmental problems that kept getting worse and a kind of religious and political insanity that had erupted everywhere. I was frightened for the future of life on the planet, appalled by all the crazies, and mad at the people who wouldn’t face the truth. I knew it wasn’t much, but I had to prove them all wrong -- at least to my students and the small readership of my books and articles. Being right was my defense against fear and a lurking sense of helplessness. If I wasn’t right, what good was I?
One morning I got, for the first time, a phone call from Samuel. He asked after me, and while I was very glad to hear from him, I was concerned about how weak and throaty his voice sounded. “Are you all right?” I asked. He laughed, then coughed badly, then laughed again. “I am what I am, just like God.”
He told me to meet him in the same coffee place we’d first talked, in the late afternoon of the next day.
When I got there he was nowhere to be seen. So I got some tea and waited. Time passed, my mind wandered to our many meetings, and Samuel’s ideas of a spiritual, nonviolent moral conversation to sustain a moral community. As I was going over his ideas once more a tap on the shoulder brought me out of myself. “You Professor Gottlieb?” asked a slender, teenage girl in black sweater. “Yes,” I told her. “You look just like he said you would -- like a teacher whose mind is a million miles away from where he is.” She smiled, not in a mocking way, but not particularly friendly either. “This is for you.” She smiled again, and left.
It was a package wrapped in plain brown paper, with a small note on top, in a shaky, spidery longhand. “Gottlieb, this is for you. I don’t need them any more, not where I’m going. You are having such a tough time moving to the next level. Maybe this will help. Don’t be afraid to change. Goodbye.”
I tore open the package to find a manuscript, page after handwritten page in the same spidery script, called Engaging Voices. It was a pile of stories.
I am now ready to share Samuel’s stories with the world -- you can read them in Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming , which comes out this month.