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Does Anyone Matter?

sermon by Rev. Paul Beckel
Southwest Unitarian Universalist Church
Strongsville, Ohio
September 27, 1998


Does the universe operate by fate? Or human agency?

Two weeks ago we got a dog. For Jane it was a matter of making a free choice...taking action fully conscious of the fact that that action would change her life.

For me, it was succumbing to the inevitable.

Fate or agency?

Now that Henry has been with us for a few days, we've noticed that he has a few foibles. For example, we have observed that Henry likes to bite things, and us. Now, actually, I wasn't surprised. I had heard that many puppies do like to bite. One might even think, perhaps, that it is inevitable. It has to happen.

But there is one breed of people who do not believe that biting is inevitable. And that is the kind who read books on dog training.

And there must be a lot of people who believe that misbehavior is not inevitable…that what they do with their dog makes a difference because there are, perhaps, even more books on how to train and care for your dog than there are on how to train and care for your children, if that is possible.

And, just like the kid books, it turns out that you have to read them ALL. You can't get by just reading one...because they all contradict each other.

On the matter of biting, for example, Jane has run across four authorities advocating different approaches. Authority 1 says if the dog bites your hand, stay still and he will get bored. Authority 2 says pull your hand away. Authority 3 says slap the dog on the nose. And authority 4 says growl at him!

Well, I've tried each of these tactics. But I have to wonder whether it really matters what I do. Perhaps it is just a matter of satisfying my own ego to think that I could have control over this dog.


Judith Harris, the author of a new book called The Nurture Assumption, makes a similar argument about parenting human creatures.

Harris's book has raised quite a bit of attention because its central argument opposes the trend of parenting literature in recent decades. Whereas most parenting books now emphasize the importance of parental influence on children, Harris argues that the long-term impact of parents' on their children's personality is approximately zero.

At first glance this theory would seem to be the work of a crackpot. Or, that is how it appeared to me. In fact, I was incensed at the idea. How could anyone say such a thing? Doesn't it fly in the face of reality? And even if, god forbid, it is true...well, you can't go around telling people such a thing. Imagine what would become of parenting if parents came to believe that it was all the same if they beat their kids, or hugged them...taught them or ignored them. Could she really be saying with a straight face that it doesn't make any difference?

Now of course, in today's media market, one can get a lot of attention for crackpot ideas. But it turns out that Harris has just received an award from the American Psychological Association. Someone has looked at her work, and found it to have merit. And here is why:

It seems intuitively obvious that parents have an enormous impact on their children's lives. But let's look at the evidence: Within most families we can see two or more children who share the same parents but have vastly different personalities. This was particularly evident to Harris, who was the biological mother of one daughter, and the adoptive mother of another. Looking back upon three decades as a family, Harris could not help but wonder how these two children, who both entered her household as infants, could turn out so differently.

One daughter was rather timid, and did well in school. The other daughter was bubbly and outgoing, had a great deal of difficulty in school, and hung out with friends who got into trouble.

Throughout these decades of parenting two drastically different children, Harris was also writing psychology textbooks, and seeing in the psychological literature an increasing emphasis upon the role of parents... sometimes, she thought, to an extreme.

Theories about physically bonding with a child immediately after birth... and even about having an impact upon the child's development before birth by playing music or reading to a child in the womb.

These ideas were quite in contrast to the pre-Freudian literature, when books on child development didn't mention parents at all! But now it has come to the point where -- every problem a person has -- they look back to see what their parents did to cause it!


But why shouldn't we look to our parents to help us understand why we've turned out as we have?

Many studies have shown the impact of quality parenting on children's outcomes. Dad reads to Charlie, for example, and Charlie comes to love reading, does well in school, and finds love and financial success in adulthood.

But Harris took these same studies and turned the assumption of cause and effect on its head. Isn't it possible, she asks, that Dad reads to Charlie because Charlie likes to be read to? That he was born that way? That it is in his genes?

And so Charlie becomes a good reader, not because Dad reads to him all the time. But dad reads to him all of the time because Charlie is pre-programmed to be a good reader.

Perhaps Charlie isn't responding to Dad's reading, but Dad was responding to Charlie's actions, his excitement about sitting down with a book, or his temperament, as expressed through his inborn love of reading.


In biologically intact families, it would be hard to tell which came first. How do we know whether Charlie inherited that love of reading from his dad, or if he learned it? Harris looks to studies of adoptive families, where the children came to have no more in common with the people who reared them, fed them, clothed them, taught them, and loved them all their lives...than with any two adults taken at random off the street.

Her preliminary conclusion, then, is that most of what becomes of kids is determined by their genes...and the rest is determined by their peers.

Time precludes me from presenting several other cogent arguments that Harris offers to show that parenting doesn't matter. I would encourage you to read the review in the New Yorker in particular.

I do believe that her theory has been sensationalized and blown out of proportion for the purpose of getting attention. But I also believe that the expressions of outrage at Harris, published as letters to the editor... reveal an ego-centric desire for control... or, perhaps, a love of responsibility that I certainly cannot maintain as a parent...

Harris does acknowledge two areas in which parental behavior has an effect upon children. First, she says, "the parent's behavior...does affect how the child behaves in the presence of the parent, or in contexts that are associated with the parent." Second, "the parent's behavior also affects the way the child feels about the parent." And these feelings can last a lifetime.


Obviously I was interested in Harris's studies because I am a parent. But I was also interested as a minister, not just to parents, but to everyone who asks about their relative importance in the world...anyone who asks if what they do with their lives...if the way they behave...even matters.

I would like you to imagine in your mind, a continuum. A simple line, running from one side of the room to another. Allow this line to represent your own beliefs about how much of an impact you have upon the world around much control you have over how things turn out.

At one end of the line we would have the extreme position that everything that has happened and everything that is going to happen has already been determined. Everything is set in place, and you cannot change it.

Perhaps it has been set in place by the natural unfolding of the laws of nature. Perhaps this is the only way things could possibly have turned out, and it is our role in life to go with the flow.

Still on this end: Perhaps everything is set because God has made it this way. This is God's plan. This is the will of the universe. And you cannot change it. So let go and let God.

I hope you will see that this position is neither inherently theistic nor atheistic. The theist and atheist may be entirely in agreement on this matter.

Neither is this point of view inherently optimistic, or pessimistic. The optimist might say how wonderful it is that everything is unfolding according to the plan. And even if I cannot understand why I have cancer... everything happens for a reason.

The pessimist can also hover around this end of the philosophical spectrum, bemoaning the fact that the world is going to go its own way, regardless of how hard he tries...that nothing he does is going to make any difference. The pessimist here, is even in danger of becoming a nihilist, giving up any concern at all with what he does...or how his behavior affects others.

It is ironic -- that the person who lives at ease, and without care, is so philosophically similar to the person who couldn't care less.


Do you live somewhere in this realm? Or down at the other end of the spectrum, to your right, where

the future is entirely open...anything and everything is possible.

Again, this point of view is not inherently theistic, or atheistic. The theist may say that god is a process, god is the grand accumulation of all that has come before... but god is not a control freak ...god is not absolute and unchanging, remote and unaffected by the world...but the future is open because god is open, and responsive, to world.

In Poor Richard's Almanac it was said this way: "God helps those who help themselves." In the Hebrew scriptures it was said this way: "I the Lord will smite your city with pestilence...but if you turn from your evil ways, I will change my mind and you will have prosperity instead."

The atheist might also find herself at this end of the line. The atheist might say that the universe operates at random; that natural laws are purely human constructs; and that just because the sun has come up predictably for billions of years doesn't mean that it will come up tomorrow...

Nothing is settled down at this end.

Down at this end where both the optimist and the pessimist can live: The optimist giddy at the thought of freedom & potential... The pessimist fearful that nothing can be relied upon to stay the same.

Once again, you have strong philosophical similarity between the person who is ecstatic about life's possibilities... next to the person who is paralyzed in fear by the same thing.

Consider the extremes:

<= everything is set, and controlled by something outside of me...

=> nothing is set, I have the potential to change it all...

Where do you find yourself on this continuum?

This is actually two questions: where do you find yourself on the line, philosophically. And where do you find yourself on the line, according to your behavior?

Do you THINK you have some control?

Do you ACT as if you have some control?

In our reading today, Robert Walsh tells us that everything matters. I love what he has to say. It is inspirational. It is an extreme position. I don't think that I could live from day to day if I took it literally.

So instead of taking it literally, I take it as a metaphor. A deeply inspirational, non-absolute, metaphor. Like the metaphor of the interdependent web of existence.

The metaphor of "the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part" is powerful and dramatic. When I experience myself engaged in that web I know that what I do has an impact. If I love I send out waves of love. If I recoil from love, then everything that I touch is affected. Belief in the interdependent web is belief that I matter.

But sometimes this metaphor has been taken to extremes.

In one of Ray Bradbury's short stories, for example, he tells of a time traveler who accidentally steps off the time machine and disturbs the flight of a butterfly. Traveling back into his own traveler finds everything to be exactly the same, except, in the recent election, not the democrat, but the republican has won.

I do not take his fantasy to mean that Bradbury really believes that disturbing the course of a butterfly today will have a disproportionate effect in a thousand years...but we do sometimes see this kind of rhetoric.

And it helps me to identify my own place on the continuum, somewhere between "my actions mean nothing," and "my actions mean everything." And I find my place in an area marked proportionality.

That is to say that I expect my effect on the world to be only proportionate to the effort that I put into it... which brings me over there somewhere.

But I also have a strong appreciation for the randomness of experience, and for our human ability to intervene…to make something out of the unexpected, the unearned…grace.

Consider our children's story today. Allison's adoptive parents clearly had good intentions. They loved her and attended to her needs.

But when Allison discovered that she was different, all of her adoptive parents' love wasn't enough. All of their love could not keep her from feeling different, and isolated. And they felt as if they didn't matter.

And yet they did matter. Because they set a context in which the seemingly random appearance of the stray cat, came to matter.

A central principle of our UU philosophy is that human beings create meaning out of their own experience. Some of us believe that an external and/or conscious power guides our experience to happen. Some of us do not. Some of us are somewhere in between.

But regardless of whether an external and/or conscious power guides our experience to unfold in a certain way, it is still up to us to make something out of it.

Allison, in the pre-determined context of her parents' love, was able to create meaning in her life by receiving and loving the stray cat.

The same challenge faces us every day: to take what has come to us...and make meaning...make peace...and make a difference.



Do you matter? I'd like us to break into groups of 4 and take the next few minutes answering that question on a personal level. You do not have to say is best to be with your doubts, fears, uncertainty...but if anyone in your group cannot say yes...stay with not try to convince them otherwise...but stay with them...



May I have the Courage to change the things I can,

The Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.


May I have patience with things that take time,

Appreciation for all that I have,

Tolerance for those with different struggles,

And the Strength to get up and try again,

one day at a time.



Allen Say, Allison

Robert Walsh, "It Matters," in Noisy Stones

Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption

Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker (8-17-98)

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