James Ishmael Ford
13 October 2013
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold
Service was joy.
It was ten o’clock in the evening on March the 2nd, 1962. A Friday. We had a moderate sized black and white television. In retrospect and given our circumstances I realize probably more TV than we could afford. I vividly recall the evening adventure of adjusting the rabbit ears on top of the set trying to minimize the lines and grain, and bring in as clear picture as possible. I remember because that was a regular feature of watching television most any night.
Twilight Zone premiered when I was eleven and my brother ten. At first we weren’t allowed to watch it. But, my father was an immediate and from that start, a fanatical fan, so even though we moved slightly more than annually, in all likelihood every episode of the original series played in our home, wherever that was. With constant wheedling and sneaking behind the family couch and watching from the dark, together with more wheedling, and yet more sneaking, by the time I was fourteen my parents had long since given up trying to enforce bedtime, or protecting us from the weird and often scary stories Rod Serling curated and sometimes wrote.
The 1962 episode was called “To Serve Man,” and was based on a story by Damon Knight. Perhaps you’re familiar with it. Some have lauded it as one of the Twilight Zone’s top ten episodes ever, and another list compiled by TV Guide ranks it among the top one hundred television shows of all time. What I can tell you is that it scared the stuffing out of the fourteen year old me.
Which is perhaps an appropriate image, as the plot, as you probably know, turns on aliens who solve all of humanity’s problems. After the first encounter at the beginning of the episode, they leave a book at, if I recall correctly, the United Nations. The title is quickly translated as “To Serve Man.” At the very end of the show as the protagonist is boarding the space ship to visit the alien’s home world, an associate runs up, trying to stop him, yelling, “It’s a cookbook!”
Caught me completely from left field. Had no idea it would go in that direction. I’m not even sure I was clear on the subject of eating people as a possibility. A decade later when Charlton Heston yells out “Soylent Green is people!” was barely a surprise, the mildest of chills. Today, where shows like Futurama make passing references both to Soylent Cola and how Mom’s universal robot controller has settings for “Serve Man (Literal),” and “Serve Man (Ironic),” it’s probably not possible to convey my utter horror on that Friday evening in 1962. I don’t think I slept for a week, If I closed my eyes, I could see the giant aliens and their cookbook, that terrible cookbook.
Actually, it wasn’t a good year for me, or for a lot of other people on the scared to the bones front. Seven months after that show my next initiation into the fragile and bad of the human condition took on a more real life wash with the Cuban missile crisis, and my stunned realization we human beings were in fact capable of destroying each other. And that each other included me.
That’s sort of the story, isn’t it? We are capable of terrible things. Not just capable. We do terrible things. Terrible things. It doesn’t take an historical sense to understand this. All we have to do is walk down the street in some of our own city’s neighborhoods to see how people can be used and then thrown away. In many parts of the world, including some barely hidden from view in this country, people are consumed by enterprises that squeeze the maximum work for the minimum pay, sometimes pay that amounts to little more than slavery. Sewing to sex, the uses are many. People are eaten, consumed all the time.
I can’t avoid the litany of horrors in Syria, where the most recent revelations of the brutal murders of Alawite civilians by rebels, apparently mostly fundamentalists, this time. But it doesn’t have to be fundamentalists, people we don’t like, doing the terrible things. In the eighteenth century Jacques Mallet du Pan ruefully observed how often “revolution devours its children.” Caught up with these things I certainly can understand Job’s wife calling on him to “curse God and die.” Particularly as I know no matter how pious, no matter how noble, how good, there is for most, following these horrors, in fact no second time around with new family and new fortune, somehow making it all right.
Dog eat dog.
Yes. We are driven to protect ourselves and ours. This is a truth. And at heart nothing wrong with that. In fact, watching out for ourselves and ours is an obligation, I believe, written into the deep codes of our DNA. It’s only horrific when followed as the only truth. Believing we’re isolated, and unconnected, we focus only on ourselves, and then do terrible things to protect ourselves, becomes do terrible things to satisfy ourselves, becomes do terrible things to entertain ourselves. Then it’s the hunger games.
And, out of this knowing we are capable of the most wondrous actions, of caring for others, of reaching out to the hurt and longing, striving as best we can to heal. There is something magical in this. Something beautiful. Something healing. And it is just as true as the possibilities of hurt that we can inflict.
Here’s the problem, or, at least, a very large part of it. Our sense separation or our sense of connection, by itself, isn’t enough. Living in a sense of isolation almost always leads to hurt, sometimes to terrible hurt. The same is true when we can’t see the boundaries, and act only for some greater good. But, together, our preciousness as individuals, and our profound connections to each other, and to the beautiful planet, give us the depth of vision that leads to something worthy. If we take our lives as holding two truths, we find they weave together into a whole life.
For reasons beyond the scope of this meditation, I suggest we see the separation most easily. Not everyone, but most of us. For whatever reasons noticing the intimate connection of all things is the latent truth of our human hearts. Seeing, feeling, knowing the connections in more than a fleeting moment, is a less common thing in our ordinary lives.
And so reaching out is very near the heart of the spiritual enterprise. We need to apply ourselves a bit, if we hope to have a clearer understanding of the connections. Now there are many different disciplines within the spiritual realm. There’s a lot of emphasis on quieting our minds, and calming our hearts. And I don’t want to understate their importance. But, they in fact, cultivate the field, allowing a next step in the process of our spiritual growth. And that is reaching out, growing, cultivating that great mustard bush, which becomes the shelter for the birds of heaven.
As the scholar Roger Walsh put it, “If there’s one thing on which the world’s great religions agree, it’s the importance of generosity and service. ‘Make it your guiding principle to do your best for others,’ urged Confucius. Mohammad never said no when asked for anything, while Jesus encouraged us to ‘Give to everyone who begs from you and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’ When Mohammad was asked, ‘What actions are most excellent?’ he replied, ‘To gladden the heart of a human being, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the wrongs of the injured.’”
This, I suggest, is our project, here. And so we have our communal responses to the hurts we find. Here at First Unitarian Church we have the more obvious ways of service, our Lay Ministers and Care Crew, our Deacons, I would add in the same context, our Membership committee. Also our various social justice ministries come just a heart beat later, Food Pantry, Neighborhood Social Justice, Standing on the Side of Love, our fundraisers for micro banks and the Girl effect, that what seemed endless slog toward marriage equality, truthfully, the list goes on and on.
It is very important to work together; to draw our hearts into some shared work. It is true for us as a spiritual community, and it is true for us as a civil community. We are measured by how we treat one another. But, at the heart of it all, these actions need to be about individual hearts, seeing into the connections with our own eyes, yours, mine, reaching out with our own hands, yours, mine. In this seeing and doing we move past the raging of our hearts and desires, and into that mysterious reality where we are both one and each other.
The poet Gary Snyder saw into the terrible beauty of what this means, the great and terrible of it all. Of both the nightmare qualities of aliens come to eat us, and the joys of helping someone in danger of not having enough to eat. To come here and find food, on every Third Monday, or, even us, going out into the neighborhoods, taking a sandwich and something to drink.
The mystery of our lives revealed, as Gary sings the Song of Taste to us.
Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds
the fleshy sweetness packed around
the sperm of swaying trees
The muscles of the flanks and thighs of soft-voiced cows
the bounce in the lamb’s leap
the swish in the ox’s tail
Eating roots grown swoll inside the soil
Drawing on life of living clustered points of light
spun out of space hidden in the grape.
Eating each other’s seed
eating ah, each other.
Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:
lip to lip.