Given that respect for human dignity is arguably the central value of Ethical Culture, how do we express that dignity in concrete ways towards people whom we do not like or are socially destructive?
I often take great comfort in the fact that Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, didn’t like everyone. Because guess what—I don’t like everyone, either!
Actually, there are plenty of people I don’t really like, if by like you mean want to spend time with, enjoy the company of, that kind of thing. Often when we think about respecting human dignity and worth, we focus on the Big Stuff: the people who behave in deeply immoral ways, who commit heinous crimes, and we try to imagine and work on how we can find them worthy. But the truth is that most of the time, we are challenged to find worth and dignity in those who are just garden-variety annoying, or have committed the kind of offenses that challenge the patience more than one’s ethical standing. Changing lanes without a blinker, for instance. Cutting in line. Using passive aggressive communication techniques. Voting in a different way than we voted. You know…the not-exactly-terrible but not-exactly-great stuff.
This is why it’s a relief that Adler experienced all of this, too (with the exception perhaps of changing lanes without a blinker), and still managed to found a religion based on the idea that each person was worthy. In some of my favorite writing on the idea of human worth, Adler starts with a whole list of all the people that he doesn’t see immediately as worthy, people who have done really wrong things. Quoting Marcus Aurelius, Adler mentions “the back-biter, the scandal-monger, the informer, etc. — might be added in modern times, the white-slaver, the exploiter of child-labor, the- fawning politician, and many another revolting type.” See, lots of people he didn’t like! But—and here is where it gets good—Adler still insisted on their worth, simply because they were people. “The answer to the objection,” he wrote, in responding the objection that these people had no worth at all, “is that I do not find worth in others or in myself, I attribute it to them and to myself.”
That distinction, so seemingly minor, makes all the difference. Suddenly, I am released from having to search each person’s personality for the thing that makes me love them, and instead I am able to encounter them truly, as a unique individual. I might find them inspiring, or depressing, or annoying, or entertaining. None of that matters, in the end. Because of the tradition I am part of, because of the faith, in essence, that I follow, I attribute worth to them simply because they are human. I often call this our traditions’ “leap of faith,” and sometimes it does feel like rather a big one. But to me, it’s absolutely essential. To be able to call on a philosophical tradition that affirms every person’s worth is core to how I see the world, how I navigate the perilous moral ground around us and all those every day annoyances, too.
Of course, philosophically attributing worth is pretty different from remembering to act that way. But it still provides a groundwork—and being part of an Ethical Culture community can provide the practice. One of the things I love about serving the Washington Ethical Society as leader is how frequently I notice members of the society reminding each other of their philosophical grounding. “Remember,” they’ll say to each other, “everyone has worth!” Or, drawing on Felix Adler’s supreme ethical principle, “how are you eliciting the best from her?” I have found, time and again, that Ethical Culturists are dedicated to living their values, to living this philosophy that is more than a century old and surely not easy to put into practice.
And that, perhaps, is the secret to handling people who annoy us, who challenge, in an everyday kind of way, our belief in the inherent worth of all: to have a community of practice. It’s easy enough to forget our highest ideals and get swept up in a self-righteous kind of frustration with those who push our proverbial buttons. But if we have “Ethical Culturist” as part of our core identity, if we return each week to gather with people who share our ideals and are seeking to live by them, if our children’s Sunday School education and our own adult education classes remind us of those ideals…well, we’re more likely to actually meet them, at least some of the time. Having to face our community as the person we truly are can be, to say the least, a motivating factor.
A community of practice can help us with the tips and tricks that make this “leap of faith” easier, too. I’m a big advocate of breathing. Not just for physical survival, of course, but for emotional survival. I often talk about the power of breathing three times; three breaths in and out, slowly and deeply. You can do it anytime, when you’re waiting in line or in the middle of a stressful meeting, or even on the phone with a customer service rep who’s driving you up the wall (although make sure they don’t think you’ve hung up). It costs you nothing, and you’d be amazed how effective it can be at returning you to your idealistic self.
I also find a lot of support in learning, or even imagining, someone’s backstory. What might be contributing to their hostile attitude? Why are they so very grumpy today? I know that I am sometimes quite grumpy myself, and of course I always have an excellent reason. Can I learn, or just make up, some reason to explain another person’s bad humor? I’m frequently surprised how quickly my sense of compassion grows when I can see the fuller picture behind the annoyance.
Often, though, I simply return to those words of Adler’s: I do not find worth…I attribute it. If the work of my life is merely to attribute worth as often as possible, I suspect I’ll add more to the world than all the great acts I imagine myself doing one day. I hope you’ll join me. And if you don’t—well, I promise to see you as worthy, anyhow.
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