Out of Many, One

Talk I gave Feb. 17 at TP …

So Yvon asked me to speak to what brings us here.

Her question was, Why Are We Here?

And the answer, I think, is because there’s no other place I can be.

There was a time in my life when I thought that being smart and strong were enough, that being invulnerable and impervious were sustainable defenses. Now many people here may have no idea what I’m talking about, but somebody does. And they’re here, too, so they’ll understand this:

I was wrong.

Living fully is living in community.

Nobody is strong enough to stand alone and weather life’s storms. Nobody is strong enough to make it alone through the inevitable night.

And nobody’s smart enough, either. The collective smarts of this community are more intelligent than any one member. Sound crazy? There’s a book called The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Suroweicki, who writes for The New Yorker magazine, and in it he reports on a simple experiment: A jar full of jellybeans, and each person in the room takes a guess. How many
jellybeans? Well, the truth is, most of us will be way off. But if you average out our responses, our collective answer will be closer than all but one or two of us. And if we do it over and over, the collective answer will always be within a few jellybeans. But the folks who land closest? They’ll change. The smarts are in the room, not in any one person’s head.

In the example in the book, there were 850 jelly beans in the jar. The group’s collective guess, was 871. Only one person was closer.

In another example, a submarine sank off the Eastern seaboard. It was out of communication when it sank, and nobody knew it’s exact location. The government, obviously, wanted to find it, and assembled a team of experts, led by a naval officer named John Craven. Nobody knew why the submarine sank, how fast it was moving at the time or how steeply it fell to the ocean
floor. And yet, not knowing all this, the group’s collective estimate of the location was just 220 yards off. Not one member of the group selected the aggregate location.

You all have heard how mutual funds that invest in the entire market, or index a specific section of the market, outperform the great majority of funds actively managed by a person or a small group of people. Again, the genius is in the market.

Finally, do you remember the TV program Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? If you do, you remember that host Regis Philbin asked contestants a series of questions. If they did not know the answer, they could call a friend, call an expert, or query the studio audience. zWhich was the best option? You guessed it, the studio audience – which was correct more than 90 percent of
the time; the so-called expert, 67 percent.

It’s an interesting thought for a religious community. The value of diversity is that it allows for more data points, more perspectives. And yes, diversity comes in many flavors, as the kids said earlier. We need diversity of experience, of ethnicity, of height and weight and occupation. To me, it gets at the genius of the democratic process, which doesn’t always feel like genius.

Certainly, sitting in a congregational meeting, “genius” is not always the first thought that comes to mind. BUT, BUT, after two years as president of the board here at Thomas Paine, I have a bedrock faith that a group, given enough information, a good process and some time to think through the question, will come up with the wisest answer. It’s really kinda humbling.

Now, this is not a request that this community make every decision communally. There is an inefficiency inherent in having everybody take part in every decision. That’s why you elect a board, and empower committees to do the community’s business. But it’s also why the community must grapple with and sign off on the decisions that set our collective direction. Because that’s how you get the best decision.

So that’s why I’m here, because I need you. And because you need me, as well as all the other folks in the room. And in the bigger room.

I don’t know if you have noticed, but there’s a presidential culling process going on right now, with at least four contenders still vying to become the President of the United States in a little less than a year. And one candidate speaks most eloquently to this need for community. Let me read from a speech he delivered in 2004, which echoes many of the UU principles that are important in understanding why I’m in this particular room, looking for your particular support:

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation—not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy. Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

That is the true genius of America — a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles. That we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm. That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. That we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe. That we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution, and that our votes will be counted at least, most of the time.

This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and our commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forebearers, and the promise of future generations. …

If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.

It is that fundamental belief, it is that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Out of many, one. That’s why I’m here. I submit it’s why you’re here, too. So let us weave our collective experiences into the wisdom that only grows out of our frank, full and loving interaction. Blessed be.

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