This I Believe: Dick Haskett (2006)

Let me begin by noting that what I believe is different than what I know. The things I know come from sources outside myself, from reading, observation, study. They are the product of what stimulates my senses and what my mind processes through logic and reason. They require data, measurements, information, evidence, and analysis. They are the facts of my life, the black and whites, and the things that I recognize as conclusions. And they don’t require judgments . . . or commitments. They are the things for which I have answers.

What I believe, on the other hand, are things that, while informed by my senses and stored in my consciousness, are things I struggle with – the ones that have moral, ethical, and relationship dimensions. I process them not through logic and reason but through my emotions. I believe them because they give order and purpose and comfort to my life. They are mine not in fact but by choice.

I’m not a profound thinker. I’m more of an inch-deep, mile-wide kind of guy, so it won’t surprise you to learn that I’m also a list maker. Here’s a list of what I believe.

I believe that “God” is just a misspelling of “good.” Do I believe in God? Yes, but I’ll use my own spelling, thank you. I believe “godliness” or “goodness” is what makes the earth a place of happiness and joy. It is what distinguishes us humans from all other organisms. Like many species, we have the capacity to out-compete others – to use our size, power, intelligence, alliances, and position to take food, shelter, and resources for our own use. But unlike other species we also have the capacity to not do so, to exercise restraint. We have the capacity for charity, compassion, and sacrifice. We alone can do good work. We alone can do God’s work.

I believe our lives are insignificant in the vastness of the cosmos, but they are not inconsequential. If I redirect molecules of air from there to there, I have reordered the universe. Likewise, when music is made here, it moves something. It sets into motion vibrations that will reach my ear, my mind, my emotions, my soul, and sometimes, my behavior. If I am inspired by those vibrations, I may even remember the music later today or on some tomorrow and offer someone else its inspirations. Nothing we do is without consequence, and we can favor actions with consequences that are good.

I believe in immortality. I find it fascinating to speculate that I may not be the first person to have ever used some of the atoms that make up my body . . . and that I may not be the last. I don’t believe in reincarnation, however. My consciousness will not live beyond me. But I will survive in the memories of those who love me or who have some reason to remember something I do. Some few human beings will be remembered far longer, but most of us — we can expect to be remembered for only a few generations. I’ll be happy with that.

I believe “Church Law” is an oxymoron. I believe unbending rules of a faith lead to intolerant rule by a faith. I regret that the church that raised me usurped my responsibility to distinguish between right and wrong. It had already decided what was sinful, so I needn’t concern myself with matters like morality, ethics, or goodness. That made life simple. Perhaps simplicity was the allure.

I believe you have no right to demand that I defend my beliefs. Whatever the belief – yours, mine, Hindu, Christian, Hopi, whatever – it does not require defense or rationalization or even discussion. It is not important to me that you confirm what I believe and I certainly find no need to validate your beliefs for you. I am obligated to tolerate any belief so long as its adherent does no harm in the name of that belief. There is no justification for injury done in the name of any god, Mars included.

I believe we all seek our own answers, and they are often inspired by the words and actions of others. And that’s why we are here, in this room, today. There are people here or in the heritage of this place, some perhaps in the same pew, whom we admire and we try to emulate. Likewise, there are people in this room who may wish to learn from and emulate us. That’s the beauty and the obligation of this living community. Legacy is a gift that is both received and given.

I believe in blessings; not the kind I grew up with, however. In my youth, a blessing was more valued if invoked by the clergy. If present, a priest or minister was expected to “ask the blessing.” I never understood why a blessing always began with the words, “In the name of . . . . “ Aren’t we qualified to bless each other in our own names, to admit that we have the desire or power to wish each other well, to beseech each other for favors or mercy, to thank or honor one another? From Danish friends I have recently learned something of the art of toasting, of pausing attentively while one among the company bespeaks a kindness, a remembrance, a wish, an honor on behalf of those assembled. I believe a toast is a blessing, but in their case, the Danes have replaced “Amen” with “Skøl.”

I especially believe in the blessing of touch, the benediction of hands lovingly placed, of  fingers curved to a shoulder or back, of hand holding, of arms around, of nuzzling, or even of standing close. I am blessed by the greeter’s welcoming handshake upon entering this place and by the minister’s upon leaving. As a tow-headed boy, I never liked having my hair tousled by aunts and uncles. My brother, fifteen months older and with dark, thick, wavy, Brylcreemed hair, never suffered the torment, and I always wondered, “Why me?” Today, whenever a grandchild comes near, I invariably touch their head. I know that’s a blessing. But upon whom?

I believe life is an experiment. The cosmos is the laboratory and we, individually and socially, learn by trial and error. Long ago we learned that those with the biggest muscles can terrorize and dominate, but the consequence is that everyone lives in fear. Civilization, the simple art of being civil, of not intentionally hurting each other, resulted from experimentation. We found that people who live with less fear live happier lives. Still later, the experiment produced democracy and still later a concept to which the experimenters were to mutually pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. I lead a less significant life than the fifty-six who made that pledge, but like them I awaken each day to the grand experiment positing this day on all I have learned on previous days. I love the experiment of life. My biggest struggle is often to define its hypothesis. Now, what is it we are here to prove?

I believe in hope. I am a forester. I view life as a “rotation” – the span of years before we are displaced by the next generation who will occupy these same acres. Tending a forest demands hope. Hope attaches itself to the roots of every seedling of every species, including our own.

In 1864, a Vermonter named George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature, considered by many to be the book that became the fountainhead of the conservation movement. In it Marsh asked the question, “Is man a part of nature?” He answered, “No, nothing is further from my belief . . . man, so far from being . . . a soul-less, will-less automaton, is a free moral agent working independently of nature.”

I believe George Perkins Marsh was wrong. Oh, I know he was right that humans have the power, individually and as a society, to modify the earth, and that morals and ethics should guide how we go about that. But remember, my remarks today are not about what I know but about what I believe. I believe we are part of nature. We have, unfortunately though, through tradition, strength, intelligence, cunning, need, or greed most often chosen “dominion” as the basis of our relationship with all else in nature.

Would it surprise you then to learn that one of my heroes is a disciple of George Perkins Marsh? Gifford Pinchot was the scion of a wealthy New York family who was given a copy of Marsh’s book on his twenty-first birthday. He went on to become America’s first professionally trained forester, and in 1905, as the first chief of the newly created U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot wrote the organization’s guiding philosophy. It says, “. . . where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.”

I believe there will always be conflicting interests that must be reconciled. What inspires me both in Pinchot’s philosophy and in the seventh Unitarian Universalist principal is that neither obligates us to decide in favor of the human animal. Neither compels dominion. Our “interdependent web of which we are all a part” doesn’t even say the “interdependent web of life,” so I’m free to embrace it on the basis that it includes not only humans and living creatures but also water, air, soil, wind, and sunlight, and, if I so choose, the spirits of plants, animals, mountains, and winds. Pinchot didn’t say, “. . . the greatest good for the greatest number of human beings.” He said, “. . . the greatest good for the greatest number . . .” and he trusted me to figure out how to measure greatness. And like UU tradition, Pinchot empowered me to define “good.” He left me to spell it as I choose.