Hugh Taft-Morales, President of the National Leaders Council (NLC) of the Ethical Humanist Movement, shares some personal reflections about a moment at a recent fall gathering of his clergy colleagues.
I don’t think that I’ve cried at any work meetings before now, but I have noticed that I’ve become more prone to tear up as I’ve grown older. Nowadays, if I go to an emotional film, I bring tissues. Indie folk music with that delicious mix of joy and sadness turns on my tear ducts. And if I start speaking about my children during a Sunday morning talk, well, I never know what will happen!
In most of these cases, while the tears are real, they are not aching tears of grief. I’ve been lucky and privileged. I’ve been spared deep trauma and I’ve not been victimized by grave injustice. But my tears are full of deep feeling—joy, yearning, exhaustion, and love. And they come more frequently these days.
Nevertheless, I was surprised at October’s National Leaders Council meeting in Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey, when, at the start of the personal sharing evening portion of our gathering, surrounded by a dozen colleagues, I suddenly found myself in tears. Granted, maybe I should have expected it. I was speaking about my children—two far away in California, all healthy and engaged in life, which stirred up profound gratitude. Thanks to my clergy colleagues well versed in pastoral support, I felt safe enough to be vulnerable. (And, perhaps, the glass of wine at dinner played a role.)
I can’t point to any single, concrete reason for my tears. They seemed to swell up from a confluence of contradictory currents in our Movement and in the world that I felt inside me. Undergirding our meeting, and most of our lives these days, was fear for our country and our world. Democracy is being tested and the planet is heating up. As Ethical Culture Leaders, we are called on to lead, but political, economic, and environmental solutions are elusive. We feel squeezed between responsibility and powerlessness.
Such heightened emotions are evident in Ethical Humanism. Ethical Societies—which offer some congregational refuge from the storm—struggle to build social justice while struggling to repair our buildings. We appeal to our elected representatives while scrambling to grow our membership. And, in our ministerial roles, we are tasked to do this work while processing the hopes, fears, frustrations, and dreams of our communities.
Of course, Ethical Culture Leaders are people too. Like many of those we serve, we must deal with the shared fragility of our bodies, our families, and our friends. National Leaders Council meetings provide time for peer support—together we grieve, mourn, renew, and replenish. I suppose it was at this meeting that I felt deep responsibility to make space for such heart work, while working to advance Ethical Culture and also trying to heal a broken world. Ever felt weighed down by so many levels of responsibility? Then you may understand that my tears might have been a response to this weight.
While feeling responsible for change in the NLC, in our Movement, and in the world, I did not know the way forward. This uncertainty and fear, while partly hidden by my optimistic exterior, contributed to my cry for help. Thankfully, some of that help was embodied at our NLC meeting by a new generation of Leaders. The four Leaders-in-Training (out of a current group of six) who were able to attend brought energy, wisdom, and calls for change. Our Movement has long stood on the foundation of proud history and tradition. But this foundation, like all foundations, developed cracks over time. Our younger Leaders see this more clearly. Whatever renovation is required to put our house in order, it must be guided, at least in part, by the future generation.
A week after this NLC meeting, at the “Decolonizing Ethical Humanism” workshop at the Riverdale-Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, I experienced some similar emotions when asked to identify feelings in my body. (See my article about this workshop on the American Ethical Union website.) Our future Leaders urged us to express our humanism in a more embodied fashion—let’s sing more, move more, and feel more in our chest and in our gut. They urged us to reexamine our vocabulary and habits of thought so as to open up new ways of living Ethical Culture. This is part of what “decolonizing” means—challenging old patterns, such as remnants of patriarchy, and making Ethical Humanism more inclusive.
Moving into uncharted territory to grow our Movement while saving the world can move many of us to tears, even when we don’t expect them. So many of you in Ethical Humanism know that uncertainty, full of risk and opportunity, is what makes change so hard. While continuing to honor our commitment to reason, deeper emotional strength is required for real change. As challenges rise, so must we. It will require us, at least sometimes, to be more in our hearts than in our heads. The seeds for change have been planted—perhaps my tears were just an attempt to water them.