* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Friday, February 28, 2014

Mark 13: Days of Future, Past

Mark 13 contains several biblical passages that have fueled speculation about the "end times" throughout Christian history. Part of this speculation arises from assumptions about when the gospels were composed, and part of this speculation arises from a human desire to feel special. If you believe that you are among a select group of people who know an incredible secret, that can be very psychologically persuasive. Even for people like me who believe that there is no supernatural, it helps to have reminders that all human perception is limited -- it helps to know what would convince you to believe something different. If you don't know what would convince you to revise your beliefs, then your beliefs are more likely to be incongruous with reality. That is what happens to some people who believe that Mark 13 is describing something about their circumstances rather than the circumstances of people in the first century.

The Jewish people during the days of Roman occupation didn't like the Roman Empire very much. They staged rebellions every so often, and these rebellions were led by "messiahs" -- men who people thought would fulfill a prophetic role and establish a Jewish kingdom that surpassed all other kingdoms. Jesus was just one of a number of messiahs running around in the first century, but if the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels is anywhere close to an accurate depiction of an actual human being, he was not the typical militaristic messiah that people were becoming accustomed to seeing. Most messiahs collected a militia and struck out against Roman authorities. Eventually, as one might imagine, Rome became rather weary of this, and under the military leadership of Titus (who would become emperor), the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE. Literally, the stones of the temple were pushed down a steep hillside so that they could not be easily used to reconstruct the place.

People were scattered, some forcefully relocated and some fleeing to the hills. The historian Josephus reported that 97,000 Jews were captured or enslaved. Prior to the Roman attack, Caius Caesar had intended to have a statue of himself erected in the temple in Jerusalem (this was perhaps the desecrating sacrilege -- a term that refers back to the book of Daniel), but historical records suggest that he died before it could be installed. Another Roman emperor may have followed suit, or there may have been some other Roman religious paraphernalia installed at the temple. It is clear that Roman authorities pilfered the temple treasury, and that some of the Jewish sects known collectively as Zealots retaliated against what they saw as abuses of Roman rule. This chaotic environment was the norm of first century Jerusalem, but particularly during the period between 50 and 70 CE.

Logically speaking, the gospel of Mark, with its reference in chapter 13 to the destruction of the temple, must have been written after 70 CE. At least the version that we now have (and there are no extant complete copies of Mark that lack this "little apocalypse" section) must have been completed after the destruction of the temple. Some evidence (internal monetary and administrative terminology) suggests that Mark was written in or near Rome, which would make a great deal of sense in the aftermath of the siege of Jerusalem. The book also appears to be written to an audience of people already converted to Christianity, since is assumes familiarity with the Old Testament and includes themes of mature discipleship and comfort. If one insists that this biography was written in the midst of persecution, then this could push the date of composition to the end of Domitian's reign (89-96 CE), but its use by the authors of Matthew and Luke would limit the latest possible date for the document's completion to about 92 CE.

With that in mind, then, Mark 13 offers a contextualization of the destruction of the temple within the framework of Christian identity. Thus, all of the words about upheaval, persecution, fleeing to the hills, and false prophets or messiahs are about first century realities. You may have noticed the words, "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Mk 13:30), and you may have noticed that included in "all these things" that was supposed to happen before that generation passed away was that the Son of Man would visibly descend from the heavens, send forth angels, and collect those who were chosen for salvation from across the planet. This, as you may be aware, did not happen.

Attempts to reconcile this failure of prophecy with a belief that the Bible is absolutely true has caused a lot of people a lot of problems. Some believers interpret a different definition of "generation" and are still expecting a major supernatural event. Some believers want to include themselves as part of those who suffer persecution, assuming that public admonition or even ridicule is equivalent to being beaten in synagogues and tried before political authorities. More often than not, in developed nations, some Christians proclaim messages of hatred and judgment or try to deny people equal treatment under the law, and then wear the subsequent "persecution" as a badge of honor. Mark 13 is not talking about so misrepresenting the Christian message that you suffer adverse consequences in your society.

What can we derive from this collection of passages intended for first century people in a situation we will never experience? Consistently throughout the last two thousand years, people have predicted the end of the world, some of them Christian, and some of them thinking that they were following the advice of Mark 13, attending to the secret signs around them. No predictions about the end of the world have come to pass. Perhaps people are profoundly unskilled at interpreting signs, or perhaps people cannot actually make risky predictions about the future with any sort of accuracy. It even says right there in Mark 13:32-33 that nobody knows when this supernatural event will happen. The value in this chapter is not about how to predict things to come.

Rather, the value in this passage is recognizing that people need hope, especially in extremely dire circumstances. One reason that religion thrives is because it offers people hope. Sometimes they still take that hope and infuse it with anxiety, which is understandable given the level of anxiety in our world. Let's assume for a moment that there will not be a massive supernatural event in which all of the elect are gathered from across the world by the Son of Man. Let's assume for a moment that human fear is the biggest threat to our well-being -- our own fear and the fear of people around us. Fear is, after all, the underlying motivator of all of the first century upheaval as well as the upheaval we continue to see in the world. How do we respond to our circumstances if we have no firm grasp of the future? How do we respond to fear if we cannot trust a supernatural to eventually rescue us?

Sometimes I feel like I'm repeating myself, but this just seems like the best place to start, and I don't hear a lot of other people saying it. We have to recognize who we are, at a deeper level than our fears, at a deeper level than our daily struggles to make it through traffic and get a certain number of tasks done and pay our bills on time. We are human beings of inherent value who need connection with other human beings. And other people are human beings of inherent value who need connection with us. We are, at our core, loving beings -- even though our fear gets in the way. What we long for is the same thing that everyone else longs for: wholeness and well-being in every facet of our lives. We want to be able to express ourselves as individuals, and we want meaningful relationships with other people. We want our lives to have purpose, and we want hope that what we do will make a difference.

The remarkable thing is that we can create these things in our lives and in the lives of others. We can't know the future, but we can know ourselves. We can express ourselves authentically, and we can connect with other people. We can create meaning by reaching beyond our fears and recognizing what matters most in our lives -- who we most want to be in the world. We can help others create meaning in their lives, too. We create hope for ourselves and other people every time we recognize how little actions make a big difference in someone's life. Every time we recognize commonality or offer a simple smile to a stranger, we bring forward a little bit more the best possible versions of ourselves. With a little intentionality, we might be able to bring our deepest most noble selves forward even more. Whatever future that creates, we'll be more deeply satisfied with the journey.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The "G" Word

I've wrestled with using the word "God" for some time now. I know that there are some people who invent their own definitions in order to keep using the word without necessarily meaning what other people mean by the word.

"God is the space between people."
"God is a person's ultimate concern."
"God is the life force that flows through all things."

This is all well and good, except that I know when I use the word "God" without going into detail to define it, other people are going to conjure up whatever their own image of God is, and most likely they're going to have an image of God that is somehow connected to the Judeo-Islamo-Christian God. Even if they have a different image of God, it's not likely to be identical to my image of God. I keep using capital-G "God" at this point because that term has come to be synonymous with a singular higher power, most often portrayed as intelligent, willful, and benevolent, with a vengeful streak toward people who hold different opinions or lifestyles than the person doing the portraying. Given that I can't control what a listener does with the word, I generally choose not to use the word "God" (unless I'm asking a question about someone's specific claims about their image of a deity).

That doesn't mean I don't have any ideas about God. Aside from acknowledging that no actual gods exist in objective reality -- that indeed there is no credible evidence to support claims of supernaturalism -- I still have some ideas about God. Those ideas extend to any god, goddess, ancestral spirit, fairies, and so on. If I were to use the word "God," I know what I would mean by it. Maybe it's better to get over what other people will do with the word in their interpretation.

God is a word people use to describe a deep part of ourselves. Sometimes, it's easier to imagine that inner part of our being as something outside of us. It's easier to imagine talking to something external to ourselves; it's easier to imagine being comforted by something external to ourselves; it's easier to imagine being loved by something external to ourselves. Some people get so accustomed to imagining this deep part of themselves as something external to themselves that they forget that God is the inner part of their being. They start to believe that what they imagine about God being external to them should be what everyone imagines about God. It's difficult for them to see that, since God is just a word people use to describe a deep part of themselves, everyone is going to have a different image of God.

People have concocted a lot of gods, as it turns out. None of those gods are real, but they are the ideas that were evoked from the inner lives of lots of different people. People feel angry sometimes, so they might imagine a god that is angry about the same things. People are awed by nature, so they might imagine that nature has gods too, that nature has a self. People imagine gods that act and feel the way those people act and feel, and sometimes people imagine gods that act and feel in ways that those people wish they could act and feel. From within different people, many different ideas of gods have emerged. None of those external ideas of gods actually do or feel anything, but they reflect what people do and feel within the innermost parts of their being.

Sometimes imagining that God is something external can be used as a buffer. When people say that God blessed them with certain abilities, they can speak boldly about themselves without seeming egotistical. When someone says that God punished a group of people with a hurricane, that person is actually expressing personal hatred or fear about a group of people and using an external idea of God as a deflector. When people pray that a person will recover from an injury or illness, they are actually expressing their own desire for the person's recovery... which is kind of odd, when you think about it. Why not just say what one wants or feels?

I believe people don't say what they honestly want or feel because they either fear how other people will respond or they fear that they are somehow not enough in their own lives. Using the idea that God is something outside of them allows people to talk about things they would be otherwise afraid to talk about. This doesn't make God real as something outside of them. It just offers people the illusion that they are not actually talking about themselves. It provides a persona on which people can project what they want and what they feel, and this feels safer than vulnerable authenticity.

The ideas people create about gods have inspired lots of stories, and many of these stories hold incredible bits of wisdom. Unfortunately, sometimes people forget to look for the wisdom within the stories and believe that the stories are intended to represent surface-level reality. Stories become "histories" rather than legends, and histories are about recounting factual data. Stories about gods aren't about factual data; they're about the inner development of people -- about growth within a person and between people. When we recognize that God or god (or goddess) is a word we use for something deep within ourselves, then it becomes easier to look at stories about God or gods (or goddesses) as lessons about who we are rather than vessels of factual data. Stories about gods are stories about us; when we make them more than that, they become less useful.

We don't insist that other people have the same innermost being as us. We shouldn't insist that people have the same God as us. Neither is possible. Whatever God you believe in is something you have imagined. If you don't believe me, ask 10 of your adult friends to describe God (or better, to draw a picture of God) using their own words and not quoting any sacred text. How many of your friends describe God exactly as you do? This isn't a matter of blind men describing an elephant. People have different descriptions of God because people have different selves. This is a problem for some, because they expect their God to do something that isn't possible -- something that they are not capable of doing.

Our innermost beings are not capable of producing miracles in the world around us. Our innermost beings are not capable of changing other people. When we forget that God is a word we use for something deep within us -- an intrinsic part of ourselves -- we develop untenable expectations. God is a way for us to forgive ourselves for doing something that goes against our guiding principles. God is a way for us to guide ourselves toward better decisions, greater integrity, or more authentic love for others. God is a way for us to comfort ourselves in the face of loss. Having a word for that deep part of ourselves is useful. Until we make that word mean something more.

When I hear anyone talk about deity or fairies or ancestral spirits or anything of the like, I understand that they are telling me something about themselves. Sometimes translation is difficult when people become more academic in their communication, but I know that these are just ways that say things about themselves that they would otherwise find difficult to communicate. No one can ever tell me anything about God that I don't already know. No one can ever tell you anything about God that you don't already know. I can't worship anyone else's God, and neither can you. I can't know anyone else's God, and neither can you. God is a word we use for something deep inside of us, an intrinsic part of us. We can never know someone deeply enough to truly know their God, but we can appreciate that when people speak of God, they are speaking of themselves. They are speaking of a very deep part of themselves.

I may still avoid the use of the word. It's a messy word because so many people believe that it means something different than what it actually means. I may still strive to speak about what I want and what I feel in a way that is vulnerably authentic and leave God out of the conversation altogether. Should I start using the word "God," though, you'll at least have some idea what I mean. More importantly, I'll have a clear idea what I mean. It helps me listen to people sometimes, except when they insist that their imagination defines objective reality for other people. Maybe this will help you in some way, too. There are probably volumes that could flow from what I've articulated here, but the basic idea that all those volumes would flow from is still fairly simple: God is a word we use to talk about our innermost being.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Isaiah 17: Prophecies and Perspective

Again we find a biblical prophecy that is a bit of a challenge, since Isaiah 17 proclaims some events that have not, as yet, come to pass. Damascus, a city that this passage claims will be a heap of ruins, forever deserted, has been a major city since the second millennium BCE; even today, it has a thriving population and occupies an important cultural and governmental role. There are those who believe that they must defend biblical prophecy, claiming that what Isaiah predicted has simply not yet happened, but that someday it will. This is a convenient way to ensure that no prophecy can ever be demonstrated to have been false -- only to be yet forthcoming. The problem, of course, is that most people who want to put stock in prophecies also want to be able to distinguish between true and false prophecies.

Simply saying that a prophecy hasn't come true yet opens the door for all sorts of prophecies to seem warranted. We can say anything, really -- couched in the framework of a prophecy -- and it can have as much merit as prophecies from the Bible that haven't yet been fulfilled. Of course, there isn't much that we can do with such prophecies. Vague predictions with no time frame don't allow for intentional responses.

"Capitalism will fail."
When? How? What shall we do?
"I don't know, but someday it will fail."
Utterly useless.

Or even more ludicrous and yet equally warranted by these standards:
"Kangaroos will one day rule over men and usher in an era of peace."
Well, peace isn't bad, but I don't know that I want to be ruled over by kangaroos. Maybe we should just kill all the kangaroos now, just to be on the safe side.
"Ah, but the prophecy will still be tentatively true. It will just be something that hasn't happened yet."
But someone else predicts that dolphins will rule the world.
By our loose standards of prophetic veracity, of course, both can be true.

What may be more helpful is to consider what the authors of Isaiah may have been experiencing and what they were attempting to convey. As we have already seen in Isaiah, Rezin (king of Aram) and Pekah (king of Israel) threatened Ahaz (king of Judah) because Ahaz wouldn't join their coalition against Assyria. Isaiah attempted to encourage Ahaz, but the king of Judah was a bit weak-kneed. Isaiah's message about this particular crisis has been, "These rulers won't even exist in a short time." That much was true. Of course, the Assyrian Empire outlasted Ahaz, and Judah remained a vassal state. The people of Judah weren't taken into captivity by the Assyrians -- the people of Israel (the northern kingdom) were.

So, perhaps this passage from Isaiah is really just encouraging the leader(s) of Judah that Damascus isn't going to be a threat to them, whoever is on the throne. Certainly, if taken as a prediction against Damascus, one would think that it would have some bearing on the current events when the "prophecy" was written. After all, if we take the book at face value, this prophecy was intended to be heard by the people alive at that time. It wasn't intended for people thousands of years later, even though some theologians continue to come up with justifications for reading multiple meanings into the ancient texts. As it reads, this chapter of Isaiah is just false. A more generous reading, however, can recognize the intended message that people have a difficult time with perspective. Understanding the passage as a message of hope also explains the bravado of the last couple of verses, "All who stand against us shall be eradicated!"

That which is immediate to us seems urgent to us. Sometimes, that perception is accurate. Certainly, a car veering into our lane is something we should respond to as quickly and safely as possible. Quick fixes are not the ideal approach to a lot of our problems, though. We make better decisions when we manage our anxiety and consider consequences and ramifications beyond the immediate moment. We make better decisions when we are clear about who we are and what we stand for, rather than reacting to what seems like the largest threat in the moment to just make it go away and stop threatening us. The message of this passage, in part, is to recognize that what seems urgent to us in this moment may not really be all that important in the larger scheme of things.

For the ancient writers of this text, this passage is part of a call to faithfulness and righteousness. Since the people's perception of practical reality was directly connected to their supernaturalism, all of the turmoil of war surely may have seemed like the consequences of their own spiritual behavior. It was unthinkable for anyone at the time that all of the circumstances they experienced were purely the result of human beings motivated by human emotions. If we recognize divinity as an intrinsic characteristic of all people, this passage may suggest something else to us. We have no reason to fear that we're going to be decimated if we do not respect the right supernatural in the right way, but we do have some things in our lives that we could improve -- for ourselves and for the people around us.

Consider Isaiah 17:7-11 reworked:

"Someday, people will realize their innermost beings, and they will be aware of their deepest, most noble selves; they will not react to their irrational fears, the anxieties that often seem urgent, and they will not foster a sense of entitlement, the illusion that they know how everything should be. By then, it may be catastrophe that awkens them to themselves; it may be that transformation has to emerge from crisis.

"For you have forgotten your deepest, most noble self,
and have not remembered the best possible version of yourself;
therefore, though your life has some pleasure in it,
and you measure up to some external sense of who you should be;
though you appear successful by some standards,
and your coping mechanisms do their job;
yet your success will be empty,
because your deep guiding principles have been abandoned."

This passage is intended to call people back to a sense of identity -- a sense of integrity with their own claims about who they were. We still need such exhortation. We are still threatened by crises, and we are prone to react to our anxiety without any real sense of our guiding principles. We just want the sense of threat to go away. If we begin now to invest time in understanding ourselves, we can engage in the process of transformation before catastrophe requires it of us. We can become more adept at recognizing our deepest, most noble selves -- the deeply rooted guiding principles that undergird our potential to grow toward the best possible versions of ourselves. We can be more intentional in our responses to the anxieties of life.

Of course, if we are content to have really honed reflexes, to be able to react to any seemingly urgent threat that rears its head, to use someone else's definition of success in our own lives --  we can do that too. We can assume that every fear we have is true. We can be oblivious to the principles that could guide us toward a more deeply satisfying life. The point is that we have a choice.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mark 12: Authority, Money, and Responsibility

Two short passages finish out Mark 12. First, the author of Mark tells us that the scribes love their positions of authority in the community, and they use their power to take advantage of the disenfranchised (particularly widows). This is inappropriate behavior for a person claiming to be righteous, and thus they will receive condemnation in proportion to the respect they demand. The second passage turns contributions to the temple treasury into an object lesson. The wealthy give appropriate amounts, but not so much that they are inconvenienced; a widow gives "everything she had, all she had to live on," and is praised for being the most generous contributor.

As has been our practice, we can look to parallel passages in which the authors of Matthew and Luke have copied from the gospel of Mark. The authors of Luke presents these two passages almost identically to the gospel of Mark. (This is what we might call plagiarism today, but the ancient world took a different view.) The authors of Matthew, however, have quite a bit to say against the scribes and Pharisees. The authors of Luke include similar words in an earlier chapter. The sentiments are about the same as what the authors of Mark express, just a bit less succinct and a bit more incendiary. Due to the drastic differences, it would serve us best to wait for a walk through the gospel of Matthew to deal with this extensive castigation. The gospel of Matthew, incidentally, leaves out the object lesson about the widow's generosity.

Both of these observations bear some similarity to situations we see in the twenty-first century, and while we could delve into first-century Jewish sectarianism and expectations of contributing to the temple treasury, such intellectual pursuits would not necessarily bring us any closer to understanding and applying the basic points of these passages in our own lives. At first, the two seem like unrelated comments on two different behaviors. The underlying foundation of both of these passages, however, is understanding the motivations behind actions. We may not be able to understand the motivations of another person, even though we may think we have somebody pegged. We should, at the very least, be attentive to our own motivations, though.

Looking at the scribes of Mark 12, then, we get a picture of people who think very highly of themselves and want other people to think very highly of them too. We don't actually know what the motivations of the scribes were; we know that they were religious and legal authorities with a lot of community responsibilities. In an authoritarian system, lack of respect for the people who make the rules is a problem, so it's possible that the stereotypical scribe persona was an intentional attempt to command respect from the people over whom one had responsibility. It could also have been a corrupt system that allowed for some people to benefit from other people suffering.

We can probably think of a long list of people who think very highly of themselves today. Some politicians, celebrities, religious leaders, and even big fish in little civic groups have a habit of telling everyone who will listen how important and right they are. Some people are a little more subtle, but astute observation will indicate that they are putting on a bit of a show. There are also some politicians, religious leaders, and celebrities who do some admirable things while maintaining very admirable attitudes. It's not really about the position of authority they hold, it's how they behave in that position. Some people may not know how not to react with boisterous self-inflation when they think they are being attacked. Other people seem to have developed the skill of remaining centered even in the midst of chaos.

This speaks to a person's emotional maturity then--what some call self-differentiation. When we are emotionally immature, we sometimes do harmful things to ourselves and to other people because we are trying to alleviate our own anxiety. We might throw our authority around because we're afraid that people aren't going to respect us. We might make a show of force because we're afraid that if we look weak, people won't do what we want them to do. We might take things from people we perceive as less important than us in order to curry favor with people we think can benefit us. All of this comes from letting anxiety or fear govern our behavior. We can't know what the scribes criticized in Mark were thinking, but it's obvious that not all of them were handling their authority with emotional maturity. Their actions wound up harming the people and the community for which they were supposed to be responsible.

It isn't just famous people who have responsibility, though. It isn't just politicians and celebrities and leaders of organizations who suffer from emotional immaturity. There may be times in our own lives when we just want people to listen to us and do what we want, and we may be tempted to throw our own authority around, such as it may be. It's tough in those situations to realize that our anxiety is pulling the strings. When we work toward greater emotional maturity, we benefit ourselves and the people around us--the people to whom we are responsible regardless of our title or level of fame. More about emotional maturity in a moment.

First, though, let's take a closer look at the widow that the authors of Mark praised. It's important to recognize that the people who gave "out of their abundance" aren't criticized for doing so, but it's clear that the widow is considered more generous because of the proportion of her wealth that she gave. Unfortunately, knowing only what we are told about this woman's circumstances, she seems to be committing an act of profound irresponsibility. Why would she give everything she had to live on? (This is what we are told. It's pointless to question whether that is an accurate assessment of what she gave.) The only reason she would give everything she had to live on would seem to be that she knew that someone else was going to provide for her needs. The modern day equivalent would be to sign over your social security to a church because you know that the people around you are going to buy your groceries, mow your lawn, pay your utility bills, and generally take care of you. There may be some people in this very situation, but does this reflect a lack of responsibility in one's life?

Money is a frequently discussed issue in a lot of ethical and religious contexts, and the practicalities of managing money are not always easy. Only about 10% of the population of first century Jerusalem could be considered wealthy, and there was a profound gulf between the wealthy and the common citizen. One could not work one's way into the upper class. In our own time, what had seemed to be a gradual equalization of wealth has been reversed to such an extent that we are in nearly the same position, except for the illusions of prosperity that coat the West. We have become a part of a global economy in which the wealthiest 10% of the world's population holds 86% of the world's wealth. On the lower end of the scale, 50% of the world's adult population (altogether) holds 1% of the world's wealth. This means that any of the problems of this world that can be solved by throwing money at them cannot be realistically shouldered by half (or more) of the people who currently exist, no matter how inspired they might be to contribute something. The hope of working together financially is an illusion for most of the world in terms of global issues.

In more localized systems, however, cooperation can be much more meaningful. Contributing money toward something in cooperation with one's immediate neighbors can have a big influence for that community of people. What is more responsible, then, if a person has a small amount of money? Is it best to give that money to an organization that doesn't directly support one's well-being holistically? Or is it best to pool one's resources with one's neighbors in order to improve well-being for a community of people of which one is a part? When the widow gave all that she had, paltry though it may have seemed to some, she was assuming that she would be dependent upon others. Fortunately, the Jewish practice at the time was to take care of widows and orphans, so she was contributing toward an organization that was committed to tending to her care. Our culture is different, for better or worse. Our decisions require a bit of thoughtfulness if we are to be personally responsible in our lives.

Even when we choose to contribute some of our money toward something we consider to be worthy, we have a choice about our attitude. A wealthy person who gives to a cause out of sincere generosity and a wealthy person who gives to a cause for a tax break or out of a sense of obligation do not have the same experience. The fact that they are wealthy has nothing to do with it. The values behind their contributions are what makes their experiences distinct. A wealth of psychological research has demonstrated that altruism is pleasing to people. We like to be generous. We like to help others. There is something about the development of our brains that has linked altruism with our own sense of personal satisfaction. So, when we are altruistic, we are happier. It seems a shame to limit the opportunities for altruism to a minute portion of the world's population simply because they have the most money with which to be altruistic.

From a logical standpoint, then, it seems most reasonable to place the financial responsibility for global issues on the shoulders of the wealthiest 10% of the world's population. It seems most reasonable (especially for the 2/3 of the world whose personal wealth is less than $10,000 each) to use available funds to be as personally responsible as possible for one's own well-being. There's a bit more to these stories than the allocation of wealth and responsibility, though. These lessons are about one's motivation. Are you giving money because you feel ashamed or afraid? Are you giving money out of a sense of obligation? Are you giving away money without considering how that act will affect your ability to care for yourself and the other people for whom you are responsible? Or are you being thoughtful and passionate in what you contribute? Are you giving because you care about something greater than yourself and you can do so without jeopardizing your own well-being? What we have to offer goes far beyond money. If we care about other people and want to make a difference, there are many ways that we can do so without harming ourselves or those around us.

Whether we are considering how we use our power and authority or how we use our wealth and resources, the underlying foundation is our attitude. Basically, it is a matter of considering whether we are being emotionally mature about our decisions. Emotional maturity is the ability to respond thoughtfully to a situation instead of reacting thoughtlessly. Emotional maturity reflects one's commitment to deeply held guiding principles instead of being influenced by the anxiety of the moment. Emotional maturity is about one's willingness to be responsible for one's own actions and beliefs instead of blaming other people or circumstances. From a perspective of emotional maturity, then, being responsible for one's own well-being is very different from being self-indulgent or hedonistic. Emotionally mature people keep their commitments (and make commitments they can keep). They don't fold or discard their values in the face of flattery or criticism. Emotionally mature people exhibit gratitude and humility, and they recognize the value of connection and partnership as much as they recognize the value of having clear boundaries in human relationships.

When it comes down to it, we are capable of doing those things that lead toward the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. We can't be responsible for other people's actions, but we can strive for our own actions to reflect our deepest, most noble selves. We can commit to being the best possible versions of ourselves. That means handling our authority well--not demanding respect but earning it, and not harming the people under our care. It means handling our finances well--not hoarding what we have out of a fear of scarcity, and not neglecting our own well-being out of a sense of shame or obligation. It also means handling all of the resources of our lives in a way that reflects our guiding principles. Our time, our intelligence, our communication, our compassion, our skillfulness--anything that we have at our disposal through which we can live authentically.

All people have inherent value, and that includes us as well as every person with whom we come into contact. We can live by that principle if we choose.