Archive for February, 2007

On Reason and Emotion

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

I am no great lover of reason. It seems a bit overblown  to me. And, as a woman, it seems that I have always been put on the defensive where reason is concerned.  Women, you know, are “emotional” and, in our enlightened,  reasonable culture,  to be called emotional is no compliment.  But,  I don’t want to be defensive about emotion,  I want to be realistic about emotion – about the benefits of emotion acknowledged and felt and the pitfalls of emotion covered over and disguised as reason.

Many years ago,  during the Viet Nam war,  I took a brief excursion into the world of the Defense Department – for no better reason than a job was offered to me that gave me the opportunity to experience life in the big city — in our nation’s capital to be exact.  One day, as part of my work,  I was invited to a briefing which  was conducted by an admiral and had something to do with weapons.

Up there in front of the room with his pointer and white board,  the admiral was the very soul of cool reason, talking about kill ratios and numbers and percentages.  And there I was,  the only woman in the room,  acting – or thinking – just like a woman,  busily converting these numbers into people and these weapons into wounds . And, I kept thinking how cold and calculating and deliberately murderous this military man was being. And  I kept thinking, what if he came right out and used the words which would have more accurately  reflected  what he was really saying?  Could the meeting even have continued if we had had visual aids, showing us graphically the bodies of men, women, and children being burned to a crisp or blown to smithereens? At that moment, I thought a little emotion was in order and that the world would be a better place  if we were all forced to feel the impact of our actions – instead of converting children and injuries to numbers and percentages and then performing logical, reasonable, actions on them.

Over the years,  as I have returned again and again to this scene in my mind, I have come to see that although he never raised his voice, never shed a tear, never broke into laughter or song, never did any of the things which we associate with the expression of emotion, the admiral in his logical, reasonable delivery was doing just that – expressing emotion.  The logic and reason he was displaying were mere servants of the national emotions of fear and anger and the drive to power.  These emotions are so prevalent and have made themselves so at home in the psyche of western culture that we no longer are aware of them.The emotions I was feeling were  compassion and empathy and anger at the abuse of language which was leading in a direct line to the abuse of the Vietnamese.  I don’t think I should apologize for the emotions I felt. I think the world would be a better place if we all were encouraged to feel compassion and empathy.  Logic and reason are always tools of our emotions. We need to understand that and recognize the power of emotion.  But there are good emotions and bad emotions.  If we followed the trail of our logical and reasonable actions back to the originating emotion, we might be appalled at ourselves; we might even be able to make some significant changes.

Just Say No To Transcendence

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

This essay attempts to answer Prince Charles’ query as to “…what it is about our society and its values that has led us to act with thoughtless destructiveness,” posed in his speech given when he received Harvard Medical School’s Health and the Global Environment Award. The text of the entire speech can be found at

Recently, Britain’s Prince Charles was given Harvard Medical School’s Health and the Global Environment Award. Luckily for me, C-Span covered the event and so I got to hear the Prince’s acceptance speech, which I thought was brilliant. In case you missed it, here are the paragraphs which I thought were the best, followed by my own thoughts on the topic of the root causes of environmental degradation and the perilous situation we find ourselves in.

But if the facts [surrounding the environmental crisis] are now so clear … it is surely the duty of each and every one of us to find out what we can do to make the situation better. However, if we are to do this, I think we need first to stop and ask how we could have allowed ourselves to reach this point in the first place? In my own attempts to draw attention to environmental issues, I have always tried to ask what it is about our society and its values that has led us to act with such thoughtless destructiveness. With all our knowledge, our resources and our capacity for sophisticated analysis of any and every problem known to man, how on earth did we arrive at this point? If we could answer that question, we could be more confident about our ability to look for and implement solutions before it really is too late.

The crux of the problem, I believe, is that we have come to see ourselves as being outside of Nature and free to manipulate and control her constituent parts, imagining somehow that the whole will not suffer and can take care of itself, and of us, whatever we do. I happen to think that this illusion of separateness conceals from us the degree to which we are still entirely dependent on those natural systems for our basic needs, notwithstanding our technological genius. Surely, if we are to find our way through to a wiser, more balanced future we must learn to see the world differently – and our role in it? To me, this is a ‘crisis of perception’ which we have to face up to. If we don’t, we will inevitably end up making all the same mistakes, all over again.

As the Prince says, how on earth did we arrive at this point? Where did we get this image of ourselves as being separate from and outside of nature? And why, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do we continue to see ourselves that way?

I asked myself these same questions about ten years ago. For me it seemed to boil down to a question of values – why did we devalue nature and overvalue humanity? Since I have always associated values with religion, I thought religion would be the logical place to look for answers. In 1997, I entered Vanderbilt Divinity School to study Christianity’s role, if any, in influencing our attitudes toward Nature. In 2000, I graduated, convinced that I had identified the culprit. And, I would like to share my insights into this matter with you.