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Gifts for Nobody in Particular

Gifts for Nobody in Particular


Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd

River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

Sunday April 14, 2013

Late last summer, the Religious Education staff here at River Road were busy cleaning out storage closets and organizing resources in preparation for the coming congregational year. Somewhere in the midst of all that, I got a text from Gabrielle, our Director of Children’s Ministries, that read: "Sermon in this perhaps?" with a picture attached. Because I am an old, old person in a thirty-something body, it took me ten minutes to open the picture, but when I finally got it open, it was a picture of a rather gnarly-looking box with black marker on it reading, "Gifts for nobody in particular." Just seemed like a great, puzzling, weirdly wonderful title for a box to have on it, and it turns out it was all full of party favors and stickers – in other words – gifts, which were in storage not for some particular person or purpose, but as it said, for nobody in particular.

And it got me thinking about how rare it is for any of us to go buy gifts, or give the gifts we already have, to share what is precious to us, with nobody in particular. After all, most of what we have to give, we give to those we love – to those who have loved and labored and worried alongside us. What we’ve got, we give to the ones most near at hand – not to strangers, and certainly not to "nobody in particular."

Human beings are, after all, tribal creatures. We create loyalties of cast and kin, generally protecting and allocating resources first according to the well-being of our own selves and then of our nearest and dearest. We are not, at our core, often understood to be creatures of broad altruistic tendencies. Rather, it is usually the case that we are pre-disposed to take care of our own, our own somebodys, while nobody in particular, well – she just generally has to fend for herself.

New York Times reporter Nick Kristof shared an interesting reflection on this when giving a talk about his career as an investigative journalist. Kristof is one of these sort of fearless people who goes into the most war-torn desolate parts of this world and tries to get people to care by using the old-fashioned wiles of prose.

When reflecting on this work, he noted a recent Pew Research study that looked at public opinion regarding funding for federal deficit reduction. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the American populous was all for federal deficit reduction. When asked about it in general, some huge proportion of people said we should cut programs and reduce the deficit. But when people were asked if specific programs should be cut, almost across the board, the majority of respondents said no. Should we cut in general – yep. Should we cut Medicaid – nope. Public schools – nope. Services to low income mothers – no way. Across the board, the specific, particular cuts looked at in the study were very unpopular – with one single exception: foreign aid. When asked, "should we cut foreign aid to reduce the US deficit," a majority of Americans said yes – even when they said no to cutting every single form of domestic spending.

Because, after all, the working mother next door is somebody. The hungry child down the street is a person. But those dying of AIDS in Africa – the sad truth is that they are to us, more often than not, no-one in particular, and what gifts we have, we will keep.

Kristof also said that anytime he writes about overseas justice issues, especially those in Africa, and especially genocide in Darfur, his readership plummets. Yet his most popular column by far, a column his editors would sorely like him to repeat, was about some errant parakeets who took up residence in Central Park. Parakeets, after all, are close to home. They’re somebody. But entire villages destroyed a world away – well, nobody in particular.

We are, it seems, hard-wired to look primarily at our local networks. We are made, genetically and socially, for the express purpose of self-survival. I won’t get into the science of it, but you know – pretty obvious stuff. If a saber-toothed tiger is attacking our cave, chances are Neolithic me is getting my kid out of the way first. This isn’t exactly something to criticize about human nature – it’s a fact of human nature, or evolutionary nature period.

Altruism, doing something for the good of others that does not benefit you or, by extension, your kin, is not a convenient match for Darwinian evolution. To quote the big guy himself in "The Descent of Man," Darwin wrote, "he who was ready to sacrifice his life… rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature."

To put it a different way – evolutionarily, it seems that the good guy totally loses and the one who protects himself and his own is the one who goes on to populate the suburbs with his DNA a few millennia later. No big surprise there – if it weren’t for the fact that genuine altruism, self-sacrifice for nobody in particular, while not the norm, is one of the most pervasive anomalies of the natural world. It happens.

David Keyes, who serves at the Arlington Unitarian Church, told me a story about his granddaughter Penelope. I can’t remember how old Penelope is – seems like maybe four or five. She and her grandmother were going to a wedding shower together and, being inclusive of the child, her grandmother invited Penelope to write whatever she wanted on the card accompanying the gift. Her message to this new young couple at the dawn of their married life was this – "I love you. Nice to meet you." That’s it.

I love you. Nice to meet you. I have no idea who you are, but I know I love you. You are nobody to me, and yet you are everyone. You’re a precious and pure abstraction, so here is a gift for nobody in particular. Hope you enjoy the blender. It comes from my heart.

Would that we could all feel that way – and maybe it’s a stretch to say that most of us, all grown-up as so many of us are, to actually love an abstraction. But to admit that those we do not love – not the enemies in the dark or the ones who have hurt us or even the ones we’ll meet today – but the ones we’ll never meet, whose burdens will never be our own – the child in Darfur or the woman clothed in sorrow in Palestine – are precious and worthy of our sacrifice. Would that we could truly cultivate in ourselves a boundless compassion, and give of our many gifts to nobody in particular.

Altruism of this variety is actually a fairly hotly contested topic in many scientific circles – whether or not it exists, if it’s sustainable, if it’s even a good idea. People fight about this, as when the most esteemed researcher of ant behavior in the last fifty years, E.O. Wilson, posited in 2012 that altruism unconnected to direct genetic benefit of the creature is more common in the insect world that previously imagined. In his somewhat undeveloped argument, this form of altruism may in fact be hard-wired into some natural behaviors, including so-called eusociality – a pattern in which some insect species live together in very large, interconnected societies.

The debate over this position has been sharp and even after a couple of years since the release of Wilson’s initial study, it continues unabated. It remains, therefore, totally unclear on a scientific level if it is possible for individual creatures to consistently exhibit actual compassion for those with whom they do not have genetic bonds or if the price paid for such compassion is too great for individuals within a species to sustain. In cases where selflessness is evidenced in the animal or insect world, science simply does not know why or how or even, in the long run – if such behavior is possible.

But Penelope knows – that little child knows, at least on some level, what it is to express love to nobody in particular, and two thousand years of Buddhist thought and practice know, and the freedom riders singing their bold and powerful spirituals through the desolate hatred of the Mississippi and Alabama knew. And here, for just a moment, is where I will go so far as to say that religion knows, on occasion, what science cannot prove.

In this case, that it is not only possible, but often preferable, for human beings to cultivate within themselves a boundless compassion for all living things, including all those persons and beings and creatures which are and will remain to them, pretty much nobody in particular.

It is the kind of compassion that runs through most of the teachings that matter in the great spiritual traditions of the world. As the great Buddhist spiritual tract, the Metta Sutta, called us to in meditation this morning:

May all beings everywhere,

Both seen and unseen,

Dwelling far off or nearby,

Being, or waiting to become:

May all be filled with lasting joy.

Let your love flow outward through the whole universe

To its full height, depth, and broad extent,

Then, as you stand or walk,

Sit or lie down,

As long as you are awake,

Strive for this with a onepointed mind:

Your life will bring heaven to earth.

Is it possible, really? Is it sustainable, this love for nobody in particular? I don’t know – but I do know, as the Buddha surely taught, that for the full healing and well-being of the human soul I’ve got, I would do well to extend love outward so broadly that it is no longer a scarce resource that I hoard for myself and a few others.

Should I wish to be at peace or see peace in the world, I must first be truly interconnected, and if I do good only because I expect a reward, genetically or otherwise, the day will come when I will be sorely disappointed and all the suffering I know might not be worth the evolutionary gain that my ruthlessness today could bring to my particular lineage tomorrow.

Religion, or even deep and abiding spirituality of this kind, isn’t necessarily correct or right. It doesn’t have to be. Instead, it is directly and powerfully counter-cultural. It calls us to a deeper way of being than our chromosomes alone can do, a life that uses the full capacities of the human mind and heart to lay claim to our moral as well as evolutionary mandates in this world.

And in the end, I’ll grant that altruism isn’t necessarily or even sustainably possible for the vast majority of human beings. I won’t dive into the fracas of proving or disproving its worth on a mathematical level, though some of you might be up to the task.

For my part, I will simply say that if we do not cultivate within ourselves a boundless and expansive compassion anyway, if we do not nurture the precious and counter-cultural possibility of caring for nobody in particular, how and when and where will the killing ever end and how and when and where will our own souls be at peace?

Truly, science and spirituality need not compete, not even in this area where the misty boundaries of moral obligation and social interconnection meet – what science cannot prove, the spirit can turn to poetry, and when religion falls into dogmatism, the scientific spirit can be more mystical than the wisest of sages.

After all, it was a great mystic named Albert Einstein who wrote, "A human being is part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for only the few nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature."

In an increasingly globalized world – where even those a continent or two away are becoming kith and kin, might the boundless compassion of altruism actually be the next genetic step after all? For now, as never before, whom we love and what we care for impacts us all. War in a distant place so quickly becomes war at home, and the Saber-tooth tiger of hunger and pollution and genocide, doesn’t content itself with the denizens of another village, but crosses whole oceans, makes itself known, until suddenly they are we and nobody in particular is everyone you love.

In other words – "I love you. Nice to meet you." Here is a gift from my heart, a gift for which I have paid dearly, extended outward to nobody in particular, that nobody who is everybody, the one I do not know but for whom I will willingly sacrifice so much.

Every adaptation begins as an aberration. Every next step in humanity becoming more human begins with some rogue creatures willing to step outside of the norm and do a new thing – to love without limit, to give without expectation of reward, to care about those with whom you will never see eye to eye – all of it, waiting for some strange, wonderful creature like yourself, to begin a shift that shifts it all.