Emerson v. Zuckerberg

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is a Sunday morning talk I gave at Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship on Sunday, April 26, 2009.

Good morning—a gloriously warm morning here in Collegeville.  I like warm and sunny, but sometimes, I admit, I fear we’ll soon have far more warm, dry days than I can stomach.

And that’s how we’ll segue into this Earth Day. As many of you know, Earth Day was created in 1970, by US Senator Gaylord Nelson. It was an immediate hit, with 20 million people participating, and numerous groups realizing they were not nearly as alone as they had felt in advocating for a sustainable, healthy future. Within four years, a raft of important legislation was passed, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and numerous other initiatives—initiatives that have been under attack for much of the 30-odd years since their enactment.

As we head into Earth Day’s 40th year, we are mired in a time of national distress, weighing out our responses to dual calamities—a human-powered destruction of the global credit markets and a human-powered warming of the planet that seems even more dire in the longer-term. As we sit between, on the left hand, the rock, and the right, the hard place, it’s hard not to feel anxious.

Now, I could speak to what we should do about global warming and the financial crisis in prescriptive terms, but it would be a waste of all our time, as I really don’t know what those answers look like. And Rev. Gabi and Rich Wallace did an excellent job on exactly that a month ago.

Instead, I’d like to consider two mind-sets as we approach this dangerous world ahead of us.

And let’s simplify this from two mind-set to two people.

On the one hand, is Ralph Waldo Emerson, a giant in Unitarian Universalism.

On the other, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook.

And here’s the part you might not expect; as we move ahead, the future belongs to Mr. Zuckerberg, and the world he represents.

Hear me out.

In 1836, Emerson wrote his seminal essay, Self-Reliance. In response to what Emerson saw as an overly crass and commercial age—can you imagine if you dropped him into the Vege-Matic/Sham-Woo world of 2009?—he argued that men should look inside themselves, to individual deliberation, to a rigorous and authentic search for and articulation of self, for life’s answers.

No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

Now Emerson scholars can corner me after the service for any mis-reading, but I’m gonna hammer Emerson here. I am not arguing for the unexamined life. Nor am I arguing against the virtues of learning to do many things. And beyond Emerson, there is wisdom in a much older admonition, an Oedipal one, from the Delphic oracle to a certain arrogant king to “know thyself.”

But there is in this uncompromising individualism a dangerous insularity. I’d argue that Emerson’s essay sits at Ground Zero of a quintessential American Character. At its best, it’s the ethos of self-sufficiency. But at it’s worth, it’s a Doctrine of Go It Alone. 

And the 21st Century will not be about Going It Alone.


Mark Zuckerberg

Welcome, instead, to the Networked Era—or, as Thomas Friedman calls it in his book “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” the Energy-Climate Era. It’s the time of We’re All in This Together. It’s the Era of Facebook.

Which brings us to Mr. Zuckerberg, the 20-something creator of the social networking site Facebook. For those who don’t use a computer or are not familiar with Facebook, it is a Web site, accessible through the Internet, ingeniously constructed to share information about you with people you know and don’t know, and about your acquaintances with you. Individuals, with sometimes frightening regularity, share details regarding who they are, what they’re doing, what interests them, and what they value.

It is not perfect. It trods heavily on privacy concerns, for example. Many times, the information on it is shallow, offensive, or trite. But honestly, have you ever recorded all your face-to-face conversations over a day? Do we think that shallow, mean, and coarse are confined to the online world?

No, for all its shortcomings, Facebook is a Connection Engine. And increasingly you can find the people who matter to you on it—in the first two months of 2009, Facebook went from 150 million to 200 million users in the United States, 25 million people signed up per month.

And our future is all about connectedness—we are increasingly entangled in a web of mutual opportunity and mutual risk. The world has undeniably shrunk, and the solutions to our shared threats will by their nature need to dismiss boundaries, national rivalries, and prerogatives of privilege. To get out of this mess, we’re going to need everyone to embrace and understand the 7th principle of UUism:  We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Let’s get beyond principles to quantifiable benefits. A recent article in the New York Times reads:

A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A large 2007 study showed an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.In 2006, a study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as women with 10 or more friends. And notably, proximity and the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival. Just having friends was protective.Finally

Last year, researchers studied 34 students at the University of Virginia, taking them to the base of a steep hill and fitting them with a weighted backpack. They were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some participants stood next to friends during the exercise, while others were alone.

The students who stood with friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.

“People with stronger friendship networks feel like there is someone they can turn to,” said Karen A. Roberto, director of the center for gerontology at Virginia Tech. “Friendship is an undervalued resource. The consistent message of these studies is that friends make your life better.”

And so I am here on a Sunday morning—in a Fellowship—and my goal is simple: to connect, and in that connection to reaffirm my joy in life and my belief in love.

And that only happens through our loving interactions together.

Two nights ago, I was in Wilmington, Delaware, where Peter Morales and Laurel Hallman, two UU ministers who are currently vying to replace the Rev. William Sinkford as leader of our denomination, were talking to local UUs. Morales was asked to share his “elevator speech,” his quick-and-dirty explanation of what he believes. His answer was instructive.

He cautioned us not to get hung up on beliefs. Instead, he said, what mattered were the things we love and value. “If we can agree that we both love people, that we value justice, then I would suggest that we share a religion.” And the room connected with him.

It’s exactly such a faith that we’re going to need to confront global issues. These challenges demand radical mutuality, on a scale we haven’t seen previously in world history. They demand a deepening connection to life, to sustainability, to care for our children and our children’s children.

And it’s the same framing we should take to our own small community. We need to overcome the tendency toward isolation. We need to find collaborative solutions as we move forward. The success of our community is a direct function of our ability to share the load, to communicate our abilities and our needs, to ask for help and to share our accomplishments. If you’re looking for proof, look to last week’s successful Eyes Wide Open exhibit. I was speaking to Scilla Wahrhaftig, who drove the exhibit from Western Pennsylvania here, and she said. “I’ve done this many times, and this was very special.” And this is why:

“Maureen had a special ability to delegate,” Sciulla said. “She handed out the duties and empowered people to do—and they did. But Maureen trusted them. That was special.”

So thank you, Maureen, and everyone who worked with her on last week’s exhibit, not just for a great exhibit but for an example of how connection and trust should work in our community.

One other lesson to be learned here is that while we foster connections amongst ourselves, many of the people who need us are not sitting here on a Sunday morning. If our creed is “shared values,” then our mission should be to support others who share our values of love and justice, and our belief that everyone matters and all deserve care and compassion, whether they are folks in need of safe housing in our own county, people recovering from Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, and people in our own community like Dan and Katie Boyson, who are right now grieving the loss of a beloved wife and mom. 

Another point of connection is our nascent ministry in Norristown. We already are involved with Norristown Ministries and the Saturday night community dinner at Central Presbyterian Church, which we staff monthly. We are making plans right now to partner with the local arts cooperative, a nonprofit that runs an arts-oriented summer camp for kids in Norristown. The arts cooperative will be holding a fundraiser in the next couple weeks, at Elmwood Park Zoo. If you’re interested in  helping with the arts camp, or just giving some material or money, contact me or Lorraine Lee, who is the chair of your Social Action Committee.

The takeaway in each example is this: Our faith and our community grow from the connections we make. It is not enough to sit here and say we are in a good place, that we are good people, that we are here if people find us, just as we can not sit back and say that we will respond to climate change if it ever comes to find us. It has found us. And we need a Facebook approach to these challenges. So let us leave here and start Friending. Amen.

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