Friday, April 10, 2015

Re-Thinking Ethics

I had an incredible experience yesterday while sitting at the coffee shop.

When I went to my usual table, I noticed an open laptop and a few books on the unoccupied table across from me. I saw another regular customer at the next table over and said, "If I sit there today, do I get a free laptop?"

"Limited time only, so you better hurry."

Well, about 30 seconds later the owner of said laptop came back to her table.

"Oh well," I quipped, "there goes my free computer."

She laughingly said, "You can have it if you want to do the work."

"That depends," I replied, always quick on the uptake, especially when a free computer is involved, "what are working on?"

"Re-writing the nurses' code of ethics."

It turns out she is a student at a local college, one which I have had the pleasure of speaking at. In fact, I have actually addressed some of her classes.

We talked for a few minutes about how she was asked to trim down a 64-page document, riddled with repetitive redundancies, down to a easy-to-read 4-page literary masterpiece. Having had a little bit of experience doing similar things, with much less weighty material, in all senses of the phrase, I offered a suggestion to her by means of a question.

"If you could sum up the whole document", I asked, "in 5 words, what would they be? 5 virtues. How would you do it?"

To my surprise, she actually thought about it, took it seriously. I mean, I actually meant it as a serious question, but I didn't expect her to do it.

"Accountability", she began, and then hesitantly added, "responsibility, compassion, respect", and then she couldn't find a fifth.

I praised her for her choices, and suggested that she try outlining the whole document with those headers. It might help her find an easier way to organize it, which appeared to be the sticking point for her.

She thanked me, and went back to her work. For my part, I smiled and went on to my own.

But something kept bothering me.

I pulled out my Ruhi Book 8, and turned to Unit 3, which focuses no the Universal House of Justice. I turned to section 30, which deals with the Western perspective, and read a few of the questions, each of which had proven so useful in many other areas in recent days.

I said a quiet prayer, and then spoke up.

"Excuse me", I called.


"Can I make an observation, please?"

"Of course."

"I noticed that in your list, you began with accountability. Why is that?"

She then began to explain to me the importance of nurses being accountable for their decisions, and how hospitals were in a tough position financially.

I told her that I was going through this workbook, and some of the questions had intrigued me, prompting m observation. I read her just a few. "What patterns of behavior emerge when an inordinate desire to stay young sets the standard for personal conduct?" "What kinds of injustices are committed when the desire for greater and greater profit is accepted as the fundamental operating principle of business?" "What are the effects on the environment and on the health of the world's population when the desire to have more and more defines humanity's relationship with nature?"

We spoke briefly of the underlying concept of materialism that pervades our culture, and how dangerous this can be, how it completely skews our understanding of humanity's role in the world.

And then I said something which, judging by he expressions that crossed her face, seemed to change everything for her. "What are the effects of putting accountability as the primary factor in that document? What would it look like if you put compassion as the chief overarching factor?"

I can't tell you what happened after that, for I could tell that she was processing that idea. She was going through those scenarios and realizing on a very deep level the problem with making accountability more important than compassion. She was coming to terms with the very idea that nursing is seen on our culture as a business, rather than a service. She was beginning to understand that she was in a very special position, capable of creating great change with such a seemingly innocuous job.

We didn't speak much after that, except to wish each other well as I left. But I could see in her expression, and her very demeanour, that she was returning to that basic understanding of why she was becoming a nurse in the first place.

We never know what little gifts God will toss our way when we leave the home in the morning. All I know is that we need to be open and ready to embrace them as they come our way.

And I, for one, am very grateful that this woman and I crossed paths yesterday.

The Source of All Good

The other day, my family and I had a wonderful dinner at a friend's home. She is an Aboriginal elder, and many aspects of the meal reflected this. One thing that she did was say a blessing before the meal, and smudge the room, along with the food. She also had someone collect a small piece of each food that was served, place it in a bowl, and then offer the bowl back to the earth. The bowl was later taken out and the food was buried in the ground. This is a tradition amongst her people.

A few days prior to this, my family and I had the bounty of going to a presentation on the Right of God. This presentation focused on the concept of this law being spiritual in nature, and not the many non-mathematical aspects of it.

Combined with all of this was our study of Ruhi Book 8, Unit 3, in which there are questions such as "What kinds of injustices are committed when the desire for greater and greater profit is accepted as the fundamental operating principle of business?" It reminds us that "the West puts itself forward... as a model and measure for others", but is not actually all that good of a model. In fact, our model "distorts human nature and purpose, trapping human beings in a pursuit of idle fancies and vain imaginings and turning them into pliable objects in the hands of the powerful."

When we came home, we had a very interesting conversation. (Standard disclaimer number 7 - This is all just our own opinion, but we really liked what we learned, so you can take it or leave it as you will.)

The essence of the conversation is as follows:

First, we realized that Huququ'llah is referred to, not only a "mighty law", but as "the source of grace, abundance, and of all good. It is a bounty which shall remain with every soul in every world of the worlds of God".

Now, the Right of God, or Huququ'llah, as you know, is an amount that is paid on whatever material wealth you accumulate, beyond your basic needs, once that amount reaches a certain level. You get to decide what your basic needs are, but beyond that, it is fairly straightforward.

When talking about the Right of God, we often hear it referred to as a form of taxation. It is likened, historically, to tithing and zakat, and other forms of revenue generation found in previous religions.

But is it?

We began to wonder.

You see, these other form of taxation are a straightforward payment. You earn money, you pay money. Nothing much to it, except that it is quite difficult if you are exceptionally poor. No provisions seem to be made for that. It is a mere mathematical calculation that all are required to obey. And maybe it's just me, but I don't see how any luxury tax, no matter what the percentage, could possibly be the "source of all good". Some good, for sure, but all good? Not likely. That would be just too materialistic a thing for me to believe.

But the Right of God is much more than that. It engages the heart, and requires planning and consideration on the part of the payee. It requires you to consciously organize your finances to decide how much is for your needs, and then calculate how much extra you earn. As you grow in this law, your needs seem to diminish as you recognize how little you actually require to survive. Now it's not asking you to be ascetic in your tastes, just honest about your desires versus your needs.

And yet, in the end, it has the phenomenal effect of altering your behaviour.

That, I see, as potentially being the "source of all good". Adopting that new attitude is a true "grace", and now it finally makes sense that it is this new attitude that would "remain with every soul in every world of the worlds of God". I never could imagine carrying around a pocket full of cash in all those different worlds, which is what I always pictured when people spoke of that aspect of this law. That just seemed silly to me.

So why do we always talk about it in terms of materialism? Why do we tend to speak of the benefits as being a material return on our "investment"? You know, as if paying the Right of God will somehow bring money back into our community sevenfold, or whatever? That's not the point, is it? The money will flow to wherever the Universal House of Justice sees fit. But the rewards that we see in our daily life as we strive to be more obedient to this law are far more impressive. As the numbers of people adhering to this "mighty law" increase, and as more and more people become aware of its importance, we will see an actual change in behaviour in our communities. People will become far more conscious of how they spend their hard earned monies, more aware of what frivolities they consume, and more conscientious of their needs and wants.

In one tradition, the native people would take the bones of their fish and return them to the waters, believing that the spirit of the fish was in their bones. This would allow them to come back if their bones were returned. In many cultures burnt offerings were given in recognition of giving back to the gods what was theirs. In Laotian Buddhism, the entire community gets together and offers the lunchtime meal to the monks, who eat their fill, and then return what is left to the community as a blessing and contribution.

In all these traditions, moderation is inherent. Humility is abundant. Awareness of how our own sense of generosity impacts the world around us is cultivated.

These, to me, are the true antecedents of the Right of God.

You see, if it were merely a luxury tax, as I alluded to earlier, then tithing and zakat would come close, but we would never get beyond the concept of this materialistic attitude. The very idea of a minimum payment would be absurd, for only the amount of cash generated would hold any importance. And that I cannot see being the main purpose of this law, given what I know of Baha'u'llah's teachings.

But when we recognize that the calculation of this sum is the fulfillment of that law, and the payment is, while important, only secondary, then we realize that even the poorest person on this planet will reap the benefit of it, for the very act of calculation fulfills the spirit of this "mighty law". Payment of any money owing, if applicable, is then not only a simple act, but one that you do "with utmost pleasure and gladness, nay with insistence". And phrases such as, "although these insignificant amounts are not worthy of mention, they are well-pleasing, since the donors offer them for the sake of God", suddenly make more sense.