Thursday, April 9, 2009


Posted by Pamela Urfer

When we first started looking for speakers for our series on “The Seven Deadly Sins,” I had no idea that the one topic no one wanted to cover was Envy. Not any more so than the others, anyway. But I’ve learned something. No one wants to admit they have been envious. No one wants to talk about it. Apparently, envy is not sexy.

Anger is readily admittable. It makes one look strong, if impetuous. And it’s easy to apologize for. “I lost my temper. I won’t do it again.” How often have we heard those words? Lust is almost admirable. What a Dude! we think. Even Greed is Good, according to Gordon Gecko and certain Wall Street types recently in t he news. But envy? Not so much.

Envy makes one look weak. Needy. We want other people to envy us. We already have a good life; why should we need more? We send out long Christmas letters full of our achievements and those of our families, so that people will see how well we’ve done. The sad truth is, we do envy others. But because it’s so shameful, we call it something else.

Let me tell you a story. Please forgive me for using stereotypes here, but a lot of envy and dissatisfaction in our lives is based on what others have done. It makes it easier to complain if we see them as groups, classes or races, rather than individuals. It’s in stereotypes we think, so that’s how I’ll tell my story.

Once upon a time, there was a WASPy young man (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, for those who don’t recognize this.) He came from a wealthy family, with all the right connections. He want to the best prep schools, where his father and grandfather had gone, and when it came time, there was a slot at Harvard waiting for him, just as there had been for his father and grandfather. We’ll call this young man Legacy Guy.

Everyone was envious of Legacy. He had what everyone wanted and they wished there were some way they could take it away from him and make it their own. And it seemed he hardly appreciated what he had, which made it all the worse. He appreciated it so little that late in his freshman year he got caught up in a frat house rape scandal and was expelled.

His slot was given to a bright young Asian woman who we’ll call Straight “A” Girl. Her parents were immigrants and had scrimped and saved, both working two jobs to put her through school. Fortunately, she had gotten a scholarship, but that meant she had to maintain her high grade point average. She often wished she could have had Legacy’s advantages, especially the money that made life so easy for him. She couldn’t understand why he threw it all away so easily. Of course, she didn’t know about his family problems, the father who was never there, the alcoholic mother. She wouldn’t have envied him those. Her parents were supportive, maybe too much so. But her time at Harvard didn’t last very long. In the middle of her junior year, she had a nervous breakdown.

The next person to take that slot at Harvard was a Black kid from a small town. His family had no money, no connections. He didn’t even have much of a family. His parents were gone, and he had been raised by his grandfather. His grades were terrible, reflecting the state of his schools. But he was a documentary filmmaker, and his senior project had blown away the admission board. We’ll call him Creative Genius.

Of course Creative Genius envied Legacy’s money and Straight “A” Girl’s supportive family. He thought they had an easy ride in life. And Legacy and Straight “A” envied him. After all, he was in Harvard and they weren’t. In their minds, he had cheated to get there, not having had either the grades or the background to make it on his own. They thought he should have gone to an art school with a major in filmmaking and left Harvard to the real scholars.

So, with everyone envying someone else, you can imagine what their attitudes were towards the next affirmative action vote to come up in their state. Or tax cuts for Legacy’s father, whom everyone agreed was too rich already. Or for letting more immigrants into this country when there weren’t enough slots at Harvard for the native-born. Their envy, and the voting pattern it created, made a big difference in their lives and in the future of their country. Multiplied by 30 million, you can imagine the damage that could create.

Some of you may say that this is a case of social injustice. But it seems to me that justice was fairly well satisfied here. There’s a difference between injustice and envy. Injustice, or justice, is what happens - and envy is how we feel about it. If we are envious of another individual or another group, we may even welcome injustice.

If we are envious, we begin to wish other people ill, to hope they fail, to suffer as we have suffered, or even drop dead – so that we can take their place. It causes us to distrust other people, to wonder what they are plotting against us. We begin to talk against a certain group, to demonize them. Believe me, I know how that works. In my spare time, I’m a writer and filmmaker. I’m extremely jealous of other writers that get better publishing contract or sell more books. I’d like to see them all drop dead.

Earlier I said that to make our envy less shameful, we call it by another name. That name is Rights. Now, don’t get me wrong. The struggle for Rights – civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights – has been a wonderful thing. There has been a lot of injustice in our country and the struggle for legitimate rights have helped many. But there’s a dark side to rights.

If we can convince ourselves, and others, that we have a right to a slot at Harvard, then we will do every thing we can to make sure we and not some other person gets it. If someone else does get it, rather than feeling sad, we can bolster our indignation by protesting their good fortune with a clear conscience. If we can convince ourselves we’re not just trying to get something for ourselves, but that instead we’re fighting injustice, or working toward a more equal society, there’s no limit to how outraged we can be at those who have done better than us.

But the more of this that happens in our country, the more the fabric of society is stretched thin. The political culture becomes adversarial, us against them. And it feels good. As long as it’s someone else’s fault, it’s not our own failings we’re dealing with.

Blame offers a simple narrative of how problems and tragedies arise, and a beguilingly simple solution – a fairy-tale solution. The fairy-tale is that the world can be fair, according to our ideas of fairness, as long as other people don’t get in our way. We think that we should always get what we deserve and if we just yell loud enough, it will happen. But there’s no way the world can be arranged that way. Sometimes these things depend on chance. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

People with better qualification will still lose jobs and university slots to people with worse qualifications. The resentment of those who lose out probably won’t be mollified by the fact that the beneficiaries of the policy might be more needy than they. If we are offended every time we don’t get what we want, and we let that sense of entitlement grow, our focus can slip from injustice to demands, and we will find ourselves unable to reach beyond our bitterness.

Our competitive society places a high premium on academic achievement. Getting ahead, making our place in the world. We think that getting into Harvard will make us happy, wealthy and wise for the rest of our days. It won’t. If it could, there would be no suicides at Harvard.

There’s a reason the Seven Sins we’re dealing with this year are called “Deadly.” Unrestrained, they can do some serious damage to our spirits - twisting, corroding, debilitating them. I think we all know that. I believe I can say about God, at least the God I know, is that he wants better for us. He wants us to get along with others, to treat them as we would want to be treated, to give them the benefit of the doubt. God’s values are different from ours. God doesn’t consider intelligence or achievement virtues. For God, kindness, respect, and love are the most important traits.

Something I find especially comforting about God is that he knows the way my life is going to turn out. Because of that, I can trust him when he suggests that there may be a better way for me to live. Haven’t you ever found that losing something – a boyfriend, a job, a school slot – turned out to be the best thing that ever happened? We can never know our lives in advance, or even what makes us happy. But God can.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Should God's Name Be Heard On Campus?

Posted by Pamela Urfer

“Certainly not!” say a loud number of voices. “Religion is an embodiment of irrationality and a threat to liberal values. Religious people are crazy. They’d as soon bomb you or shoot you as look at you. It’s too much trouble! Best leave it alone.”

And didn’t your mother tell you the same thing? “Don’t talk about religion, politics, or sex,” she cautioned, “and you’ll get alone with everyone.” The post–Enlightenment modern university agrees with your mother, but for other reasons.

The most well-known are:

1. Acknowledgement of religion violates our post-Enlightenment principles.

2. There is no God, so therefore religion is basically self-deception and superstition.

3. Religion has perpetrated too many atrocities and must be acknowledged as the root of most social unrest in the world.

4. There may be a god (or many) but vulnerable college students should not be pressured into joining any organized church by purveyors of those beliefs so that they can use their time on campus to study, learn a trade and/or find themselves (in a secular sense only.)

5. Even classes in history of religion must be taught by non-believers as anyone who is actually a member of those religions can hardly be considered neutral in their beliefs and will use class time to proselytize.

Recognize those? Let’s see if we can’t (easily) rebut them.

1. There was much wisdom, as well as much craziness, in the 18th century struggle against dogma and hierarchy. But now, with the Enlightenment’s own dogma and hierarchy firmly in power, we might want to reexamine what we consider oppressive.

2. The non-existence of God has never been proven. It is a minority opinion held by a small (but influential) number of Northern Europeans/Americans.

3. Yes, this is true. And much good has come from religion as well – the anti-slavery movement in Britain and America, Child Labor laws, the Civil Rights movement and even William Wilberforce’s pet project, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As evangelical lefty Jim Wallis says, “The answer to bad religion isn’t secularism. The answer is better religion.”

4. Protecting college students can only go so far. Outlawing alcohol and drugs has been only partly successful. Forcing students off-campus for their stimulants is not the same as a cure. Religion, if outlawed, can also create a backlash. Nothing is more attractive than the forbidden.

5. What exactly are we afraid of here? Are physicists not allowed to teach physics in case their natural enthusiasm for the subject seduces students away from their chemistry major? Must native Italian speakers teach Swedish instead, so as to keep language learning on neutral ground? Teachers of the same religions they practice can only be made into bogymen if adopting a religion is considered a fate worse than death. (see #4 above.)

There is one more point forbidders of religion often miss – many students arrive on campus as members of a religion. According to the 2006 CIRP survey, at UCSC 48.9% of incoming students self-identify as practitioners of a religion. 52.1% will have attended a religious service and 33.8% carried on a discussion of religion in the past year.

Roman Catholics at 17.5% are, by far, the largest self-identified group. These students, raised in a close family environment with religion a basic aspect of their identity, are being asked by the paternalistic university to renounce their heritage “for their own good” and the better development of their ‘identity.’ Teaching such students that God doesn’t exist, that they don’t really need him and are far better off without him, is to do them some sort of damage. And it is a step beyond the true parameters of a noble university.