Friday, July 24, 2015

Musings about baptism

Image result for baptism images

An Ethical Musings’ reader asked me for my thoughts on the Episcopal Church’s Baptism liturgy, which is found in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on p. 299. The reader had found an essay by Debra Cole, Her Holiness posted at the Bitter Southerner’s Folklore project, troubling.

Cole expresses affection for the Episcopal Church. She thinks that most Episcopalians are reasonably well educated and appreciates the honesty of Anglican history, although she rightly dislikes both Henry VIII’s gluttony and domestic violence. Significantly, Cole has no intention of joining us but believes that we tend to be “relatable, aesthetically minded and intellectually tolerant.”

She did contemplate having her daughter baptized at the Episcopal parish in Atlanta that she occasionally attends. One obstacle to proceeding with the baptism was her realization that she would prefer a cake for the post-baptism festivities with a question mark instead of the more traditional “God bless.”

Then she read the baptismal liturgy and discovered that it posed what, for her, were insurmountable obstacles. If I understood our liturgy as Cole interpreted it, then I too would find it deeply disturbing. Needless to say, my interpretations differ substantially from Cole’s at several critical points.

First, she objects to the renunciation of Satan, initially suggesting that the word Satan may metaphorically connote evil and then deciding that the Episcopal Church takes the word literally. Evil is real; Satan is not. Some people find personifying evil as Satan or the devil spiritually helpful. In contrast to prior generations, relatively few twenty-first century Episcopalians (an opinion that reflects my bias) take that image literally.

In other words, our rich liturgical legacy, like many legacies, has both positive and negative aspects. The positive explicitly links us to the great cloud witnesses who have preceded us; the negative is that we must cope with words and ideas that we understand very differently than did our predecessors. The baptism liturgy is a also poignant and sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the reality of evil, an important counterpoint to those Christians and others who would prefer to gloss over inconvenient or negative aspects of existence.

Second, Cole finds the idea of putting her whole trust in Jesus’ grace troubling. She notes that even with a video of Kennedy’s assassination and eyewitness statements taken within hours of the even, people are uncertain about exactly what happened. How can anyone know for certain what happened at the end of Jesus’ life in the events central to historic Christian theology, i.e., Jesus’ trial, death, and alleged resurrection?

Nobody can know the facts. People who claim to know have substituted their opinion for demonstrable fact. Perhaps some opinions are correct. Certainly, some opinions are more correct than other opinions. Yet, no basis exists by which humans can determine which of the gamut of opinions about Jesus are more or most correct. As I have repeatedly emphasized in Ethical Musings, the Bible offers little help resolving this historical problem because the text consists of human words arranged by human authors to tell a story that the author found important. (Perhaps knowing the historical facts is far less important than our making the Biblical stories our stories, if doing so enables us to live abundant, loving, fulfilling lives!)

The Christian tradition began with multiple Christologies. Some Christologies depicted Jesus as human but with a divine message and perhaps divine power, others saw him as entirely divine but manifest in human form, others sought some middle ground between human and divine, and yet others attempted to formulate a theory of Jesus as both human and divine.

Through mandatory allegiance to the Creeds and other theological formula Christianity has sought to enforce a normative theology. In actuality, that effort never fully succeeded; at most, it simply created a façade of theological uniformity that glossed over considerable diversity of belief. Nominally acceding to the established forms was far less costly (think of all the heretics burned at the stake!) than honestly expressing one’s opinion. The amount of evidence of disparate Christologies from the last twenty centuries in spite of Christianity’s diligent and unrelenting efforts to enforce orthodoxy emphasizes how unpersuasive many Christians in all generations found the Creeds and doctrinal orthodoxy. Diversity of thinking in the contemporary Church is strong – think of Bishop Spong, for example. Someone who today openly frames her own understanding of Jesus is in good company. Christianity is much more about the journey than theology.

Third, Cole interprets the phrase There is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism as an affirmation of Christian exclusivity. Historically, that phrase emphasized the Church’s unity. Indeed, the idea of one Baptism has pointed toward Christian inclusivity: anyone baptized using the Trinitarian formula of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” was considered to be a Christian. Recently, this teaching led to the Episcopal Church insisting that Mormons are Christian precisely because they have been baptized using the Trinitarian formula even though normative Latter Day Saint Christology is radically different from the Christology of historic Christianity. Furthermore, a close reading of the Catechism (pp. 845-863 in the Book of Common Prayer) shows that while the Episcopal Church proclaims salvation in the name of Jesus the Church proffers no judgment on the fate of people who follow a different path.

In short, Cole reads and understands the baptism liturgy through the lens of the mild fundamentalist that she once was. Her interpretation makes me personally uncomfortable. I’m thankful that the Episcopal Church is intellectually tolerant, extending its aesthetic beyond buildings and music to include the language of our liturgy. We have lots of room for Debra Cole. She is right. Nobody needs the Church to be a good person or a good parent. Nevertheless, for many people the Church in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, offers a supportive context for living a more abundant, loving, and spiritually fulfilling life.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Evidence of globalization

 Image result for trattoria images

While in Florence, I ate at a small trattoria (restaurant or bistro, in English) at which I had eaten several good meals when I was in Florence five years ago (not the place shown in the photo).

The restaurant, located near Florence’s Cathedral and in the heart the tourist district, had changed. Five years ago, a mixture of locals and tourists ate at the very popular trattoria. It served excellent, traditional Italian fare at reasonable prices. Knowing restaurant Italian was very helpful in perusing the menu, which was printed only in Italian. The owner was generally present. He often sang while cooking in a kitchen separated from the dining area by a counter or, as time permitted and the spirit moved, strolled around the restaurant serenading guests.

Now, the restaurant is still popular and the prices are still reasonable. The menu, however, lists dishes by their Italian name and has English subtitles/explanations. The wait staff greets guests in English; presumably they would switch to Italian if the guests did not speak English. The clientele were all non-Italians, at least while I was there. And as I watched, many consulted their smartphone or pad, confirming that this was the place that they had located using TripAdvisor, Yelp, or another internet review service. The food is no longer as traditional and the portions, if anything are larger (the staff expected that diners would often want to share an appetizer, pasta, or secondi – something that I have not observed in Italy until this trip).

I’m not surprised that the restaurant changed. Five years can be a long time in the restaurant business.

I was mildly surprised that the internet apparently plays such a central role in the success or failure of this trattoria, and of many other places at which I ate during this sojourn in Florence. Some proprietors and wait staff openly solicit diners to write recommendations on various websites; decals advising prospective diners that the establishment is reviewed on TripAdvisor are now frequently posted alongside the menu on an exterior window.

I was disappointed that the restaurant had changed its business model from catering to a mix of locals and tourists to focusing primarily on tourists. I don’t visit Italy for a taste of Americana with Italian seasoning; I visit to experience Italy and the Italian culture. This move toward homogenization is a downside of globalization.

In addition to dining out, my partner and I have had some meals in the apartment that we rented for the month. We buy bread at a shop less than a block away. The small shop – about the size of a living room – primarily sells fresh bread baked in the back room that day. I’ve see two different women at the counter. One speaks no English and the other speaks only a little English. Most of their customers speak fluent Italian and appear to live locally. The bread is excellent!

I wonder how much longer the shop will survive. Both women are middle aged; the man who bakes the bread, visible from the sidewalk through a large door left open to allow ventilation, is also middle aged. Their breads are inexpensive to buy. My guess is that the next generation has little or no interest in taking over what seems to be a profitable family owned business that requires long hours and much hard work.

Outside the shop’s front door, a man from Senegal daily spreads his wares on a small cloth that is maybe three feet square. His wares vary a little from day to day. Presumably, he manages to sell enough to keep him alive. I don’t know if he qualifies for welfare or has anyone else to support. He is friendly and unobtrusive. He speaks almost no English.

During the course of a day here, I’ll see many such vendors. A few, generally in areas packed with tourists, push their wares. Most are more laid back and wait to speak until a passerby takes an interest in an item for sale. All appear to be from Africa.


This is probably one visible tip of Italy’s immigration problem. I admire the vendors’ entrepreneurial efforts to get ahead. Selling stuff is certainly preferable to begging. A higher percentage of beggars than of these vendors seem aggressive in their solicitations.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Not missing Starbucks

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A cappuccino at the bar (think small restaurant or café, not what the word connotes in the US) nearest the apartment I rented in Florence costs 1 euro, i.e., a little more than $1.10. Not only is it about a third the price of a Starbucks’ cappuccino, they serve it in a ceramic cup and with better coffee and foam than at Starbucks. Admittedly, it’s smaller, though I suspect that the shot of espresso is the same size in both places.

After having walked dozens of miles in Florence, I have yet to see a single Starbucks or other American restaurant or coffee franchise. There are US retail outlets as well as retailers from elsewhere in the European Union. I don’t know if there are legal barriers to entry that keep non-EU food franchisees out. However, if such legal barriers exist, I doubt that they are necessary. I don’t know why anyone would want to spend more and get less.

Vienna has lots of US fast food outlets and several Starbucks coffee shops. I ducked into one of the latter for a brief look. My impression is that most of the customers were tourists, especially from the US, willing to pay exorbitant prices for the familiar. I did not buy anything, having discovered that Viennese coffee was both better and less expensive.

Traveling without experiencing the local culture seems a waste of time.

Florence has an extensive system of parks. Sadly, the parks all need more attention. The government that could afford to build the parks can no longer afford to maintain them (or, alternatively, the government that built the parks could not really afford to build them, much less to maintain them).

The park system here reminds me of the transportation and utility infrastructure in the US. The governments that built what were often the best roads, bridges, parks, utilities, airports, ports, etc., in the world no longer properly maintains those facilities. Unless the US substantially increases its infrastructure investments, the US will continue to lose its global economic competitive edge and suffer from a diminution in quality of life. The first signs of the latter are already evident: bridges with warnings about diminished load capacity, parks with closed or inadequate facilities, unrepaired pot holes, etc. In other words, US roads may begin to resemble Italian sidewalks!


Instead, the US spends exorbitant sums on national defense. In fact, much of the money is wasted, either purchasing advanced weapons systems that the US will probably never use in combat or funding operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere that have little realistic chance of success. Terrorism poses a real, but limited threat. Unfortunately, US counterterrorism efforts are generally ineffectual and unethical (to read my proposals for effective, ethical counterterrorism against non-state terrorists, read my book, Just Counterterrorism, available through Amazon).

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Unintended consequences of moving toward marriage equality

The Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention, its central legislative body, met in Salt Lake City earlier this summer. General Convention elected the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry as the Episcopal Church’s next Presiding Bishop (cf. the Ethical Musings’ post, Now that we have elected Bishop Curry as Presiding Bishop) and eliminated gender bias from its teachings about marriage and liturgies for celebrating marriage.

General Convention’s approval of marriage equality appears to have attempted a “big tent” approach to the problem. However, Resolutions A036 and A054 may have also sown the seeds for an unintentional harvest of schism.

Allowing individual members of the clergy to refuse to officiate at any marriage for any reason continues longstanding practice. The resolutions appropriately expand this provision to include all couples who request the cleric to officiate at their marriage.

This is not a problem. Some clerics and even some congregations will persist for decades in refusing to accept marriage equality. Neither the cleric nor a congregation comprised of similar minded people should be penalized. Indeed, a few clerics and scattered congregations still refuse to utilize the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). With the approval of the cognizant diocesan bishop, this remnant clings to the 1928 BCP. Those unable to live in today’s Episcopal Church departed the fold long ago. Similarly, those clergy and laity unable to exist in a Church that supports marriage equality mostly departed years ago.

However, allowing a diocesan bishop to prohibit same sex marriage rites within the bishop’s diocese can become divisive and potentially lead to schism. In those relatively few dioceses in which the incumbent diocesan bishop will refuse to authorize rites for same sex marriage, opposition to marriage equality can easily harden. Laity supportive of marriage equality may opt to leave an Episcopal congregation to attend a congregation of a denomination that practices marriage equality. Clergy committed to marriage equality will likely regard the diocese’s exclusionary stance as a negative factor in the process of deciding whether to accept a new call. Conversely, clergy and laity opposed to marriage equality may the diocese’s position attractive.

In time, among some of this handful of dioceses, one’s attitude about marriage equality may even become a litmus test for candidates in electing a new diocesan bishop, hiring key diocesan staff, screening ordinands, and filling vacant parishes. A similar polarization has occurred within the Church of England over the ordination of women, threatening its unity. Unlike the Church of England, the Episcopal Church is much less securely bound together.

Furthermore, some US dioceses cover large geographical areas. Pointing couples whose marriage a diocese refuses to celebrate to another diocese can create an illusion of having met people’s needs when such recommendations may actually be rather impractical, especially for couples of limited financial means. Access to the Church’s rites should not be contingent upon one’s geography or wealth.

General Convention authorizing diocesan bishops to opt out of marriage equality should be only an interim measure. Soon – very soon – every diocese needs to support marriage equality. A diocesan bishop who objects – like any member of the clergy – should be able to opt out, but personally and not for his/her diocese. (Interestingly, none of the eighteen bishops who signed the minority report were female! Perhaps bishops who are women tend to be more inclusive or perhaps they know personally the pain of being excluded.)


The 2018 General Convention should modify the canons to authorize a diocesan to delegate to another bishop (e.g., a suffragan, assisting bishop, or diocesan in an adjoining diocese) any personal involvement in same sex marriages (e.g., approval of remarriage of divorced persons). This provision would honor theological diversity without imposing what many persons will perceive as bigotry on others, avoids the potential for honoring diversity hardening into a litmus test that eventually raises the specter of schism, and prioritizes caring for God’s people above respecting sensitive episcopal consciences.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A closer look

Renting an apartment in a foreign country and spending a month there provides time for a closer look – and experience – of a culture than one gets from the brief visits that most tourists make.

I have gone on whirlwind expeditions, most notably a three week European driving tour that covered a dozen countries. Brief stops usually involved visiting a site to which Michelin assigns three stars. (After visiting some one and two star rated sites, especially when in the same area as three star rated sites, I concluded that their rating system was generally consistent with how I would rate the sites, giving me more confidence in this approach. Two decades later, I still find the Michelin rating system reliable and useful.) I have also travelled by car across the United States ten times, always stopping to see sites along the way. These trips have been two to six weeks in duration.

The advantage of a driving tour, whether by car or bus with someone else doing the driving, is that one can see more, albeit more cursorily. This presumes that traveler proceeds at her/his own pace, with time to stop to see significant (however one defines that term) sites, to enjoy a taste of different foods, and at least get a superficial sense of how the culture changes along with the geography. My tours of the US and Europe give me a breadth of perspective that I would otherwise lack.

Alternatively, a packaged tour comprised by non-stop sightseeing, travelling often by night or at odd hours, with very long days – if it’s Wednesday, this must be Bruges – generally leaves the traveler exhausted and with increasingly blurred memories of what he/she has seen, done, and consumed. Package tours (slow river cruises are probably the exception to this generalization) may be preferable to not travelling, but are a poor second-rate experience compared to venturing off on one’s own. Package tours are better than the mad dashes across country (approximately 72-96 hours) that many military personnel and families do when moving from one coast to the other. Globalization (think of the Internet, the worldwide popularity of English, the convenience of much travel in the twenty-first century, etc.) makes self-organized travel easier than ever before.

Some people do make globetrotting a priority, e.g., an Australian couple with whom I conversed while we all enjoyed gelato. They had rented a camper and were on a three month trip around Europe. Several years earlier, they had made a similar, extended trip around Africa and a few years prior to that, traversed the Americas. Nevertheless, few people can afford the luxury of taking a year during or after college to travel the world. Even fewer can afford the “Grand Tour” that England’s wealthy often took during the nineteenth century.

However, with the growing affluence of retired baby boomers, many can afford to travel. More Americans would benefit from travel abroad, seeking not just a broad perspective but also an in-depth experience of one or more cultures.

Spending a month somewhere gives me a taste, not only of food and drink, but also of how people actually live. I learn a little of the language: not enough to converse, but enough to get a glimmer of how that language shapes a particular culture and different thought patterns. The classic illustration of this is that the Inuit have 17 different words for snow; I have no idea how many different types of pasta, each with its own name, the Italians have. A month in Florence, after having spent a month in Venice several years ago, has helped me to appreciate Italy’s heterogeneity.

Of course, if I spent a month or two every year in the same locale, I would acquire an even more in-depth understanding and appreciation of a particular culture. However, that would entail the disadvantage of not experiencing other cultures. For me, spending a month every year or so in different places is the right balance between depth and breadth; others will find a different balance preferable.

Travel can easily become narcissistic. The narcissistic traveler – think of a self-centered ugly American who judges everything by life in his/her home area and who demands that everyone to cater to her/his every whim – is clearly selfish and should stay home. Travel (like most experiences) should be a catalyst for change and a means to living more abundantly. In talking with tourists from the US and elsewhere over the past few weeks, I suspect that there are a goodly number of narcissistic travelers in spite of the many for whom traveling broadens more than their waistlines.


Sometimes I wonder whether I could achieve more with the money and time I spend traveling if I used those resources differently, e.g., organizing a program to feed or to shelter some of the homeless beggars I encounter at home and abroad. My musing about those issues has not yielded any easy answers. Self-delusion and self-justification are too easy. The best lived life, I believe, strives for balance and has various chapters (for more, cf. my prior Ethical Musings’ post, My changing perspective).

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Now that we have elected Bishop Curry as Presiding Bishop

Depending upon one’s age, The Episcopal Church (TEC) today is clearly not your father or grandfather’s Church (and in those days, TEC was unmistakably male dominated). Mid-twentieth century caricatures of TEC as the Republican Party at prayer now lack credibility and power, except perhaps among a nostalgic few who yearn to return to what they believe to have been TEC’s glory days. TEC, after all, was the Church to which many of the nation’s founding fathers belonged and its members in subsequent generations frequently dominated politics and business.

No more.

TEC now firmly stands for social justice, having prominently advocated for civil rights and against poverty, hunger, and the death penalty. Illustratively, a once exclusively male clergy has become fully integrated; the outgoing Presiding Bishop was the first woman to occupy that position. 1950s opposition to remarriage after divorce has become 2015 support for marriage between two consenting adults, regardless of gender. And a church that remained unbroken across the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War, implicitly tolerating slavery by not explicitly denouncing that evil, has just elected its first African-American Presiding Bishop.

Some critics believe that these changes substantially contributed to TEC’s significant decline in numbers and influence. That erroneous assessment reflects two mistakes. First, correlation is not causation. TEC’s more assertive commitment to social justice did not cause its numerical decline. Concurrent with TEC’s increased emphasis on social justice and internal ecclesial changes, society has become more secular. This trend affects most churches, not just TEC. For example, the trend is now evident among evangelical and conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptists. The Roman Catholic Church has avoided declining only because new immigrants have filled its pews at a rate that exceeded the ongoing exodus of longer term US residents.

Second, to the extent that people have left TEC because of TEC’s emphasis on social justice, TEC is arguably healthier, stronger, and more Christ-like. TEC inherited from the Church of England a Christendom model of the Church that presumes everyone in a community is, by default, a Christian. In today’s globalized religious marketplace, that premise is no longer true – if it ever was. Furthermore, skeptics have long carped that some people attended church to make business contacts, gain social acceptance, etc. I no longer hear that canard; the emphasis on social justice has caused such persons, whose affiliation with TEC was more nominal than genuine, to seek more congenial fellowship elsewhere. In other words, the decades of transformation may have been like a refiner’s fire that burns away impurities, leaving behind those who are more committed to incarnating the gospel message of God’s all-inclusive mercy, love, and justice. Our central ecclesial model has shifted from the Church as the exclusive ark of salvation to the Church being God’s hands and voice at work ministering to broken people, broken structures, and a broken world.

Like a boxer training for a championship bout, TEC is getting close to its prime fighting weight. Changing metaphors, the crew is nearing the peak of its training and the decks are almost cleared for action. Some work remains to be done. Moves to empower the laity need additional effort and resources, better equipping them for mission through deeper, lifelong programs of spiritual formation. TEC’s internal reorganization needs completion, transforming TEC from a slow-moving, unresponsive bureaucracy into a nimble, electronically connected missional force.

General Convention overwhelmingly elected the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry as TEC’s next Presiding Bishop. Bishops and deputies deeply resonated with Bishop Curry’s vision of taking Jesus to the world rather than expecting that the world will come to the church.

Bishop Curry’s election is a step in the right direction, but the journey ahead is long. And it will be difficult. Nobody, not even a person of God’s choosing, can make this journey alone. Pausing for more than a few brief self-congratulatory moments, content to allow our leaders to bear the burden of mission in this crucial time post-General Convention, will result in TEC becoming increasingly irrelevant and soon dying.

The real proof that TEC has experienced a positive transformation is what happens next. Will congregations and dioceses become more entrepreneurial? Will they prioritize people over buildings? Will they streamline structures, reduce overhead costs, and risk spending 10, 20 or an even larger percent of their time and money on local mission? Will they creatively continue to reframe and communicate the good news in ways appropriate to a post-modern, twenty-first century world? Will they see and feed the hungry, see and give drink to the thirsty, see and heal the blind, see and visit those in prison, see and clothe the naked?

Ruth tells her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Where you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16). The Church is Christ’s bride. Let us resolve that where TEC goes, we too will go. Like Ruth, we do not know what the future holds nor that we will always be pleased with that future. But, like Ruth, we do know that God has not brought us this far to abandon us.

And like Ruth who went unbidden to her kinsman Boaz at night, dare to risk much. TEC has become more just, more Christ-like, and more rooted in Jesus. Now, let us dare to proceed onward, to let go of things that helped us journey this far (e.g., some of our buildings and inherited theological formulas) and to grasp those things, perhaps still unknown, needed to continue our journey.


We can see in Bishop Curry and hear in his words, as well as in the lives and words of our other visionary leaders, God’s calling. I hope that we will boldly follow these leaders, emulating Ruth, who once having committed to journeying with her mother-in-law, bravely followed her advice to risk everything by going to Boaz at night.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Gaining perspective


I am spending a month in Florence, Italy.

Depending upon the time of day, several different populations are visible in this urban area. During the day, tourists seem to be everywhere, gawking at the sights. In the early evening, when the heat of the day is past, the beautiful (aka the affluent) people become more visible, strolling, perhaps shopping as they are seen and being seen, enjoying a drink, and eventually dining. Hordes of college students begin to fill the streets near sunset, which is at about 9 pm. And amongst all of these itinerants are the people who actually make their home permanently in this city: the elderly, the children, and those who work.

I wonder to what extent persons from these various populations actually pay much attention to each other much less interact on more than the most casual basis. The tourists that I have observed generally seem intent on their sightseeing, often appear tired, and exhibit only cursory interest in the city bustling around them. The beautiful are mostly privileged tourists and appear more self-interested and self-absorbed than do ordinary tourists (of course, my observations and generalizations may also be in error). Students, I’m guessing, are busy with their studies during the day; their behavior and the tenor of the conversations I’ve overheard suggest that they just want to have a good time in the evenings.

And the people who live here? Except for their remarkable tolerance of the unending torrent of visitors, residents of Florence don’t seem all that much different than people most places.

It’s not so much the uniqueness of the people I see in Florence or what they are doing but observing them in a different context and culture that gives me a fresh perspective.

One aspect of perspective is scale.

For example, I think of myself as a whole (I hope that I am not schizoid!). However, I also know that may have 37 trillion cells in my body, each of which has some measure of independent existence. Scientists estimate that microbes that live in or upon my body but are not part of my body (think parasites, though I have a symbiotic relationship with many of these microbes and could not live without them) may out number my cells 10 to 1. On a microscopic scale, I am far from being a unitary whole.

Conversely, I disappear into physical insignificance when utilizing a galactic rather than microscopic scale. The ratio of my size to the known universe is far less than the ratio of the smallest microbe I host to six foot frame.

Yet another aspect of perspective is detail.

Florence’s different (to me!) architecture, strange traffic patterns, and enticing odors frame too many people for me to count, many of them speaking foreign languages that I rarely understand and sometimes cannot even recognize. My sensory capabilities – sight, olfactory, hearing, touch, and taste – are qualitatively and quantitatively the same here as elsewhere. Being in a new place is a powerful reminder that I routinely ignore most of my sense experiences, paying attention to only the select few that attract my interest or concern in a particular moment.

Being in a place that is foreign to me, I am less certain of which inputs are important to my safety (I well remember, while at the Naval Academy, burying a woman who had been struck and killed by a bus in Scotland when she looked left instead of right) while also trying experience what is most interesting or novel. Upon returning from extended travel, I find that I am more alert to my senses, noticing anew or for the first time things that I previously ignored.

A third aspect of perspective is the meaning or value that I give to experiences.

Humans are inveterate meaning makers. This is partially rooted in our evolutionary biology. We create narratives to describe, interpret, and explain our behaviors entailed in sustaining and perpetuating life. My narrative is a tapestry woven from my relationships and experiences as well as both my conscious and unconscious ideas and feelings.

Travel can expose a person to people who have constructed very different narratives about their lives. Stores sell different foods. Small shops still compete with large stores. Interior design and furnishings place greater value on style and less on functionality than is common in the US. Art and style are treasured more than efficiency. Dwellings are small. Community seems more important than does individuality: people have chosen to live in densely populated urban areas, depopulating rural areas. A life lived here tells a different story than a life lived in Raleigh or Boston.

Yet another aspect of perspective is the rhythm by which people live.

On the train trip from Rome to Florence, I was struck by how much parts of the landscape resembled the parts of California that frame the central valley. In late June, the land was already beginning to turn brown, obviously arid. The weather forecast for my month in Florence calls for a month of hot days with moderate humidity. Shops and restaurants outside the main tourist area still close in the late afternoon, the hottest part of the day. People work hard, yet find time to stop and chat with neighbors, passersby, and others. Locals eat their evening meal late, as the sun sets and sitting outdoors becomes more comfortable. Afternoon siestas are common.

Life here has a different rhythm from the super-air-conditioned US. I’ve not seen anyone don a sweater to stay warm when indoors; outdoors, they often walk slowly, travelling by foot instead of air conditioned vehicle. Alternatively, individuals who drive do so with aggressive abandon, especially when riding a scooter.

In sum, musing about my travels prompts me to think about the narrative I tell to give my life meaning, the scale I use to frame and to interpret that narrative, the details I include and those that I omit, and the rhythm with which I live and with which I tell my story.

These musings seem especially appropriate today, the Fourth of July, the celebration of US independence. Too often, patriotism connotes an attitude of superiority and disdain for others. I am American by birth and predilection. However, I also love other cultures and find it impossible to say that one country is inherently superior to all others. Travel is an opportunity to develop an understanding and appreciation of other cultures, putting the good and the bad of my own in fresh perspective. The true measure of patriotism is one’s commitment to improving one’s own nation while concurrently affirming the dignity and self-determination of all.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Some European observations

Since my last Ethical Musings post, I have been in Europe, spending almost two weeks in England, a week in Vienna, two days in Rome, and now a month in Florence. My last visit to Europe was roughly two years ago. Here are some brief observations:

·        The English language continues to become more pervasive. In both Austria and Italy, even in a business that has more native than foreign customers, the staff generally presumes that visitors will speak English rather than beginning in the local language.
·        A good measure of a state’s relative wealth within the European Community is the extent to which hotel and restaurant staff comes from Eastern European states. In both England and Austria, the preponderance of hotel employees and restaurant wait staff with whom I spoke hail from Eastern Europe. In Italy, after more than a week, I have yet to meet someone from Eastern Europe; most are from rural Italy.
·        Similarly, Italy is dirtier and many more things (vehicles, furnishings, etc.) are older and more worn than in Austria and the UK.
·        More Americans seem to be travelling in Europe this year. Although that opinion is based upon anecdotal evidence, like all of these observations, the strong dollar appears to have increased tourism from the US.
·        Beggars are more numerous everywhere. Thankfully, most are very passive. The social safety net across the UK, Austria, and Italy may more holes than it should, may be stretched too thin, or both. Some of the beggars look relatively young and in good health, but most look old, handicapped, and struggling to survive.
·        Life in Europe moves at a slower pace than in the US. Northern Europe (the UK and Austria), however, move at a faster pace than Italy, especially in the heat of the summer.

·        Climate change, from the weather I have experienced on this trip and from comments people have made to me, is real in Europe. Temperatures are becoming more extreme, storms stronger, and seasons either drier or wetter.