I presume David Brooks dubbed his article “The Moral Bucket List” after the movie “The Bucket List” in which two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die. In the process, they become unlikely friends and ultimately find joy in life. So I began thinking about the difference between a material bucket list and a spiritual one. The difference between doing and being. In this over-crazed busy world, busyness has become the drug of choice and a badge of how important I am. My mantra all too often becomes “I do, therefore I am”. Rather than check off the “100 places to visit before you die” or shop for the latest stuff you can’t live with out (shopping is not adventure travel) developing a moral bucket list requires some quiet time, ALONE without electronics, ear buds, and cell phones. Spiritual development invites a soulful retreat into our inner being-- Alone with the “Who AM I” question” and “who would I like to be”?
Spiritual development focuses less on doing and more on being. David Brooks frames it well when he says: “It’s not about the resume virtues but the eulogy virtues.” For me that is not the self-aggrandizing virtues we extol on Facebook, but those internal qualities we want people to leave people with when we die. In order to discern those internal qualities we value in ourselves, requires quiet contemplation.
Where might we search for guidance for a moral bucket list? Various sources such as definitions of morality, religion, philosophy, The Bible, favorite quotes, and moral mentors. Although these sources may be helpful, ultimately a moral bucket list is uniquely ours, just like Jack Nicholson’s and Morgan Freeman’s Bucket list was unique to them. So the first step is to address the busyness syndrome in our life so we can allocate time to quiet contemplation.
Do you know the book “Simplicity Circles: Return to the Good Life by Cecile Andrews? She tells how she left her job as high powered college executive to focus on simplifying her life. I remember attending one of her sessions, and she said: “Have you noticed how many people when asked ‘How are you’ reply ‘Busy’ .“ So for me, a major barrier to considering my moral bucket list is my busyness. But I’m working on that. I am making a conscious effort to shift both my thinking and my behavior and trying to drop my old mantra “I do therefore I am.” What is it about “busy” that is so alluring? Does it make us seem more important than we really are? Is it the sin of pride? When we constantly check our emails and leave our cell phones on 24-7, what are we really saying? I must be important, someone is calling me? Or is it the pull of novelty – some thing different happening that I need to know about? This can lead to a frenzy of distractions.
Or perhaps the dread or fear of examining our own conscience keeps us moving. Or perhaps creating a moral bucket list feels like an odious task—one more thing to put on my “should” list.
When I presented the title “The Moral Bucket List” to my cousin at dinner one night recently, he immediately said, “ That makes me feel anxious and like I should do more and should get more involved in social justice causes, or other community activities, or be more available to others”. He’s a school counselor and a fabulous one at that, hard working, emotionally and materially generous to a fault. Yet his immediate reaction was guilt. As one of my Catholic friends says, “Guilt, the gift that keeps on giving”.
So what is your reaction to creating “A Moral Bucket List” ?
There are numerous ways to view morality. As I mentioned, we can draw on definitions, UCC principles, Christian sins, quotes, and moral mentors. As far as a definition, generally we think of morality as discerning right from wrong. But that’s complex and nuanced.
Killing is wrong, unless it’s justified, perhaps WWII. Breaking the law is wrong unless it’s for a good cause. I sat at lunch counters in 1964 where I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, with black people and took them to the public swimming pool—both acts of civil disobedience.
I am fascinated with the ethical medical question of “Who Shall Live” so much so that after finishing Divinity School I thought about getting a PhD in Medical Ethics. The who shall live question is thorny, complex and individual. For example who should get the lung transplant and how do you decide? The lottery, the person who contributes most to society, the youngest, the “neediest (by what ever measure we use to determine “needy”) ? As we know the morality of Death with Dignity Act” or assisted suicide, although legal in Oregon and Washington, is contentious.
I notice also that morality can change based on personal experience. So someone might be vehemently opposed to the notion of death with dignity but might still want the option to chose that for themselves. We probably all know someone whose public and private stance is at odds. The Catholic Church’s public stance on choice for the beginning and end of life, may different from an individual priest’s view The official Catholic church teaching is that only God gives and takes away life and suffering has redemptive value. However, the priest of Mary Ann, the second wife of my former husband ( aka husband emeritus), when she was dying of ALS and who was very Catholic, asked her priest if it were okay if she stopped eating and drinking and he compassionately affirmed her decision.
One of the things I love most about liberal Christians is for us there is little or no schism between our personal and public morality.
So yes, morality is both relative and individual, but there are times and circumstances when we draw the immovable line. Where do you draw the line? Where do any of us draw the line? Lummi Nation and other Native Tribes have drawn the line regarding the Coal Terminal, by saying absolutely not. They have refused the big money offered as payoff to get them to support a Coal Terminal in Bellingham. Their moral principle is preservation of the environment, a green landscape rather than green inked paper . Lummi Nation has drawn their line and chosen the well being of the planet and it’s future over quick and easy money. I know a number of you as religious people of faith are standing in solidarity with Lummi Nation and have indeed drawn the line.
At times we stand on a moral precipice and we struggle with how to do the right thing, when immediate personal gains intersect with long range community or public needs.
The notion of human morality is probably as old as human society. The adage “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” the Golden Rule predates the Bible and shows up in one form or another, in most religions and cultures. One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. It implies a reciprocal or two way relationship, a willingness to empathize with another, to value all beings and to treat one another with respect and dignity. And although it’s true we may aspiring to this Golden Rule, it’s rigid application does have a down side, if pushed to the extreme. One form, is what we might label the rigid liberal--that humorless. driven individual who shows up at every rain-drenched bone-chilling protest, with distain written on their faces for the laggards like me who are lounging around at home cozy and warm in my bunny slippers.
As someone once quipped: "Gosh, if Liberals had been in charge we'd all be speaking German." I am fond of saying—Everyone’s asset if pushed too far becomes a liability. For if we do more for others than we do for ourselves we dishonor ourselves. There’s a limit to self-less giving.
We are most familiar with morality based on the 7 Deadly sins. When I went online to find out the origin, one blogger had this to say: “Our famous seven deadly ones were written down by Pope Gregory I around 1600 as a teaching tool for the slovenly masses. They do not appear in list form in the Bible, but they are biblical concepts. Are they redundant sins? Not really, but I do notice that all but one of them (sloth) seem to have become modern virtues and the theme for most "reality" TV shows: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, greed, and anger.”
Years ago I did a humorous sermon on these 7 deadly sins raising each sin to a virtuous pinnacle. Take envy. I used the example of my 8th grade summer when my best girl friend and I were staying at a cabin with my grandparents on Lake Erie in Ontario. At the beach, all the boys were hanging around curvaceous, svelte, Mary. I, chubby and jealous, lost 20 pounds by eating only 2 Lorna Dunne cookies each day for 6 weeks and as a result have remained the same willful 110 pounds for the past 60 years. So envy has it’s upside.
So my plea for all of us is not to be too rigid with our moral bucket list. Humor helps. Also to recognize that morality is mutable and may be situation-specific.
But if you were to contemplate a moral bucket list where else might you search for ideas?
A number of years ago, William Bennett at one time, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, compiled “The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories” (1993) to further the moral education of children. He included stories and fables geared for children to illustrate his 10 virtues which are:
Another source to draw upon for a moral bucket list might be quotes. Three of my favorites are:
1. Henry David Thoreau a transcendentalist, also American author, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, and tax resister.
Thoreau advises: “Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much of life . Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” Thoreau certainly walked his talk.
2. Another quote I like is from Steven Pinker evolutionary psychologist and Harvard Professor whose book “The Better Angels of Our Nature. Why Violence Has Declined” I recently read. It’s thesis is that the world is getting less violent (Fox news to the contrary).
Pinker says: “Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings.”
3. And third, Immanuel Kant, often considered the father of modern philosophy.
He says, “Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.”
Another source of morality might be your favorite slogans or sayings.
I once had a t-shirt I wore until it fell apart. It said, “Personal Intregrity -- a world where everyone wins.” So your favorite bumper stickers or slogans may function as a moral compass.
Perhaps your faith tradition informs your moral code. As you know I grew up old-fashioned Congregationalist, in a quintessential New England white steepled clapboard church in rural Vermont.
As you may know the Congregational Churches were organized when the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation (1620) and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629) acknowledged their essential unity in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. One of the affirmations of that Cambridge Platform which has always been a guiding beacon for me are: “We covenant to walk together in mutual obligation.” I think those words are as compelling now as they were some 375 years ago.
We might also look for direction from moral mentors. Who would you pick as moral mentors? Perhaps someone living or dead has guided you spiritually. My Mom, who died in 1985, was that for me. Her moral principles, more often lived than spoken, were: take risks, examine your conscience, and help those less fortunate. For me, these three moral principles are worth living and guide my life.
David Brooks, the guy from whom I cribbed this title “The Moral Bucket List,” says in his article: “It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” He goes on to say: “ External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with our own weakness. Think about that: Character is built during the confrontation with our own weakness. Does that ring true for you?
Brooks concludes that “wonderful people are made, not born.” He says, “People I admire have achieved an unfakable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual endeavors.”
Brooks talks about moral mentors as “ People who radiate an inner light—and seem infused with gratitude. Pope Francis comes to mind.
Timothy Egan a Pacific Northwest author of books such as "The Good Rain, The Big Burn," wrote an article recently for the New York Times entitled: Pope Francis and the Art of Joy. Egan opines that Pope Francis “not only took the name of a nature loving pauper, but mingles with the people, cleans their feet, and invites the homeless into his home”. Egan lists the Pope’s advice for Happiness: “Slow down; take time off, don’t proselytize, work for peace; don’t hold onto negative feelings; move calmly through life; enjoy art, books, and playfulness.”
So rather than work on a moral bucket list, perhaps we’d do well to follow the Pope’s advice, thereby filling our hearts with interior freedom and peace.
And finally to heed the words of Kant:
“Morality is not the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness.”