Skip to main content

Two Wolves: The Less You Know, the Better

There’s another new book I read in preparation for this sermon, called Breach of Trust by Andrew Bacevich. He served as an officer in the US Army for 23 years, so his critique of the way we fight wars now, with an all-volunteer army, has gotten some attention. There are a few main points he raises that I want to highlight.


After the Cold War ended, we no longer had a familiar enemy to prepare for war against, and yet, we had a made-over, well-heeled army. The army was all dressed up with no party to go to. It had taken a good couple decades to remake the substance and image of the army after the debacle of the Vietnam War – there would be no more draft. The military would be professional, and the best. Whatever mission it took on it would succeed at. So, when conflict began presenting itself in the Greater Middle East region in the early 90’s, the generals could stop worrying their defense budget would be cut. Since Desert Storm, it has been game on.

Bacevich says that because regular citizens no longer have skin in the game of war, we have forfeited our power to say which wars are worth fighting or not. Without the sacrifice of the masses involved, there is simply too much apathy to stop the people at the top who have made those choices for us since the army was remade. Bacevich refers to these people at the top as “the military-industrial-congressional complex, and the mushrooming private security sector.”

Listen Here

So that’s the first thing we should note that our injured veterans and our immigrant detainees have in common. They pay the highest price for being the fuel that makes the military-industrial-congressional complex run. We just pay our taxes.

Without soldiers to fight our wars, there can be no war. Wait – that’s not true, is it? We have drones and targeted killings now – but the damage of two big, pointless, on-the-ground wars in the past decade has been done. It is true that without prisoners there can be no prison business.

We could add something to the mix of the military-industrial-congressional complex – media. In Vietnam, the press had complete access and could photograph and write what they saw. The media has changed their focus since then and, many believe, their standards of integrity. So, what immigrant detainees and damaged veterans also have in common is that they are mainly out of sight, out of mind. We don’t see them, and that’s by design.

Because I have faith, that if the masses knew the extent of their suffering, if we all knew, we wouldn’t acquiesce as we do now. If everyone knew that the violence and trauma of war is destroying families and lives at the rate that it is, and that the detention quota is also destroying families and lives of regular, good people, then that apathy problem would dissipate quickly. I have faith that if we knew, things would change.

But that’s the other thing these two populations have in common – that the less we know about them, the better it is for the forces that want to keep war constant, and prisons proliferating.

And not knowing much has become a popular m.o. It’s become our habit to insulate ourselves and our children from the pain of the world. There are no shortage of distractions, and for goodness sakes, we have our own pains to bear, right? Like in the prayer of my colleague, there is so much.

The last thing I want to do with this sermon is make you feel guilty for not doing or caring enough. That’s not the point. What I’d rather do instead is inspire you to deeply reflect on what you’re missing out on if you stick with the m.o. of the masses, and say, “I don’t want to know about that, that’s too depressing.”

Because here’s the thing. The less you know, the more emotionally inoculated you are, and also, the more spiritually inoculated. Inoculating ourselves from the pain of the world actually makes us more spiritually dead. Ignorant bliss is like smoking crack – just because it feels good, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you. What does it take to face this pain? It takes understanding that there is value in participating in the struggle over the long term, in the common effort to make humanity more free – it takes grit.

I’ve come across two insights about children that I believe apply to adults, too, and how spiritual development works. The first is from psychologist Wendy Mogel, who writes this in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee:

“An especially troubling aspect of modern childrearing is the way parents fetishize their children’s…feelings and neglect to help them develop a sense of duty to others. I saw an example of this when a child died at a secular high school where I lecture. The day after the tragedy adults were stationed around the campus so the children would have someone to talk to if they felt bad. There were no…sacred good deeds to be done on behalf of the dead child, no organized lessons in social obligation. In the religious community the students might help to prepare and deliver dinners to the family or escort the younger brother home from school. The emphasis in this secular community was to keep the children’s self-regard intact and their mood elevated.”

I found this reference in a wonderful sermon by my colleague the Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons, Senior Minister of First Congregational Society of Brooklyn. She asks, “Do we worry too much about what we’re feeling and not feeling, and too little about what we’re doing and not doing to make things better? The empathetic impulse is only consummated in empathetic action. If we frustrate the impulse too many times and give it nowhere to land, it will eventually just slink away.”

While we need to be selective about the suffering we respond to since we can’t respond to it all, it is good for ourselves and for our children to learn the value of responding, and being part of what can make things better. Just as distracting ourselves and inoculating ourselves becomes a habit, so can being engaged and participating become a habit.

I’m fortunate because being engaged toward making the world a better place is a big part of my job as a minister. It’s my job to provide such opportunities to you. But first I need to convince you why it’s of value to take me up on it. I’ll be straight up with you. Being socially engaged and of service, in whatever form that takes, is part of what it means to be a successful human being. And being successful and effective makes me feel good about myself, it makes me feel awake.

A recent study about what it is that makes kids successful was undertaken by a woman named Angela Duckworth, who just won a MacArthur Genius grant. Her research team did extensive studies of how kids achieve indicators of success, such as graduating high school and college. She found that it wasn’t IQ, social intelligence, or family income; it wasn’t good looks or physical health – it was grit. In her words, “Grit is the disposition to pursue very long-term goals with passion and perseverance. [There is a] stamina quality of grit. Grit is sticking with things over the long-term and then working very hard at it.”

When I heard about this study on the TED Radio Hour, I thought, my goodness, that’s just like spiritual growth! We don’t gain spiritual or emotional growth unless we’re willing to engage in the struggle, a long-term struggle that includes set-backs and requires stamina to stick with it. But what reward, what success, there can be if we keep at it.

The reason a lot of people don’t get involved in fighting the good fight for social change is because they think it’s too hard, too slow. There’s not enough immediate gratification. We have to have the wisdom to know we are planting seeds, that each action has ripples, as Dorothy Day said, “that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.” Each effort we make doesn't always feel great, but accumulatively, the actions we take together, over time, is the stuff great lives are made of.

Spiritual growth and social change take grit – liberal religion has always sought to connect social justice with spiritual evolution. We acknowledge it's hard work. And we say, not only are we up for it, we know we'll be better for it, and therefore it will be fun. That is part of the appeal of grit - do you really want to pass up grit in your life, and miss all the fun?

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

The problem with the masses living in ignorant bliss about the suffering we are collectively responsible for is that we coalesce to being a spiritually stunted people. If we are too busy entertaining ourselves we don’t engage in the struggle that is our birthright, that is what we were put on this earth to do –the struggle to make our souls larger, stronger, more compassionate, more able to affect positive change for all.

Just look at the recent victories of the UU Service Committee and the UU Legislative Ministry of California - they passed legislation such as the Human Right to Water because they really participated in the struggle. We can say no to drones, no to barbaric detainment policies. Once people know? Things change. We can say no to the way we fight war, once people know how irrational and cruel it is. Now that people know how ridiculous it is to not let same sex couples marry, it’s changing.

It's always time to fight the good fight once we know with religious conviction what's worth fighting for. Perhaps it begins with realizing our own souls are worth fighting for. Religious liberals hold this existential tenet sacred: that we find our salvation in our actions, in the meaning we create for ourselves. Do we really want to say we spent more time on the superficial, on things like Twitter and Angry Birds and porn, than we did on creating meaning in our lives?

We find meaning in struggle, in the battles we pick in this life, in how we choose to become veterans of our own wars. Let them be good wars, not careless wars. Let us not become individual microcosms of American turpitude. Let us instead become the seeds that germinate and sprout into the movements that eventually end the war on immigrants, the war on drugs, the war on terror.

Let’s go back to the reality of the immigrant crisis and undue burden our warrior class carries: families are being destroyed. THIS PLACE, this church, is about strong families. Strong communities. Remember about a month ago, when Rev. Jim talked about residual or peripheral faith, that faith that holds that, regardless, change is still worth fighting for? It’s related to the belief that if we make a difference in just one person's life, that the struggle and the effort are worth it. It’s the faith that uses the raw building blocks of unlikely friendships to build communities, the kind of friendships that it takes courage to create. The kind of relationships we make when we're tired of being inoculated of feeling.

It’s a common complaint of recent veterans that they can't feel - it's why their marriages fall apart. The reason is they are trained to not feel, so they can kill, so they can maim, and treat Iraqis and Afghans as horribly as many of them did. Reading Finkel’s book made me realize the humanity of our soldiers. Some of their deepest suffering has to do with the guilt they feel over how they treated their fellow human beings in this small, small world.

All of our invasions of countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as the 99% and "Occupy" movements are my generation's Vietnam, all of our versions of WWIII. 500,000 men and women have serious, life-impairing injuries. Not 50,000 dead this time, well over ten times that of souls for whom life will never be the same as before they left for the war they fought, ostensibly, for us.

If we don't understand the spiritual reality that the violence we put out in the world comes right back to us, then we all engage in this large-scale dance of self-destruction. How we are waging war and how we treat immigrants is self-destructive. The less we know, the more we participate in this matrix of self-destruction. Everywhere and always, our most fundamental spiritual challenge is to become more aware and more empowered to act in the name of empathy and compassion.

President Obama once said, “You and I as citizens have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

I love President Obama – and I’m heartbroken over many of his policy decisions that have created so much suffering and destruction. But I still believe in the Roosevelt in him, that being the presidential quality that pleads with his constituents, “hold me accountable, hold me accountable.” The fight to make whole the soul of America is every American’s fight – to ensure that the power wielded in our name, bought by our tax dollars, aligns with our values.

There’s this idea that the more knowledge you have, the older you get; and the saying about how we get old too soon, and wise too late. I'll end with a variation of an oft-told Native American story about a young boy and his wise old grandfather.

The boy was clever. And for a time he enjoyed his cleverness, his ability to win against his friends the way today's kids play video games. But each year this became less rewarding. Finally, he was stumped enough to go to his grandfather.

"Oh Grandfather, I am caught between two paths: the one I can easily take, and the one I feel that I should take. I am of two minds. It seems smart to take the path I'm best at, but more and more that path grows less and less satisfying. It leaves a hole in the center -- in my center. I have received many gifts from the Great Spirit. I am handsome, strong, quick and smart. I can outwit all of my friends with hardly any effort.

"The trouble is, Grandfather, that I'm starting to feel badly when I beat them at all their games so easily. It's a hollow feeling. Something wants me to choose the harder route, toward helping people rather than taking advantage of them, to do good things rather than just talk about doing good things. And I do know the difference. But I am pulled in both directions, and so have come to you."

"Ah!" said the old man, "I do know your challenge, because when I was your age it was also my challenge. I can tell you, you will never completely outgrow this. The easy path is so attractive!"

"Yes, grandfather, you do understand! But how did you solve this?"

[dc]"F[/dc]or many years, I have thought of these two voices inside me as the voices of two wolves. One whispers in my left ear that I should take what I can get. The other whispers in my right ear that I should be ashamed to always give in so easily to the easier path, and that I should act in a way that will let me feel proud rather than merely clever, when I look back over my life."

hannah petrie

"Alright, yes - two wolves. But Grandfather, which wolf wins?"

The old man put his arm around the boy's shoulders, and whispered, "The one that I feed, my son: the one that I feed."

Rev. Hannah Petrie
Neighborhood Church

Thursday, 13 November 2013