Perhaps there is a place for taboos in Unitarian Universalism.
I grew up attending Catholic school, a place featuring well-meaning, judgmental nuns. As a child and into adolescence I did typical things, sometimes delinquent and unkind (not Lord of the Flies wickedness), while other times healthy and normal. I was taught that a number of these “thoughts, words, and deeds” in both categories were sins. But they were also satisfying in their own ways. Hence, the root of my adult struggle.
I’m still wrestling with how I actually—and should—feel about deriving enjoyment from doing bad things. I travel in airplanes, drive when I could bike, use a gas mower instead of a push mower, and nudge up the thermostat (even while wearing a sweater) when working at home. So I contribute more than my fair share to global warming.
And what am I to make of the meteorologist speaking of “nice weather” in February when temperatures hit the low 50s rather than struggling to reach the high 20s? Or what should I make of the fellow at the Laramie garden center telling me that planting seedlings in early May might be sensible this year? (When I moved to the high plains thirty years ago, the standard planting date to avoid a late frost was June 1.) This winter, I luxuriated in that balmy February afternoon and fantasized of having more than 100 frost-free days for my squash and cucumbers. But I knew these profligate joys were made possible by the sinful consumption of fossil fuels. I confess that I was ashamed of being pleased.
Perhaps this moral-sensual dilemma is a unique condition of a Catholic-turned-UU, but I suspect others experience a similar tension.
Oftentimes, naming a situation or condition can be helpful. I remember having a worrisomely persistent numbness in my thigh a couple of years ago. When web searching finally revealed a condition called meralgia paraesthetica which can be caused by a pinched nerve in the buttocks after prolonged biking, I was relieved. My ailment had a name and just knowing what to call the aberrant state of affairs was a relief.
So, what to call the undeniable delight of preternaturally warm weather? We could go with “guilty pleasure” or “shameful indulgence” but these are a bit inelegant. Another possibility is the French word jouissance which is creeping into English usage. The term pertains to illicit pleasures, which seems apropos, but it typically carries a sexual connotation which doesn’t quite fit an environmental context despite our bodily connections to the Earth. (I think of gardening in somewhat sensual terms, but that’s probably a consequence of Catholic suppression of forbidden desires). Rather, the quality of being forbidden evokes another simple word: taboo.
A taboo refers to social and religious restrictions. Use of the term has declined in the twenty-first century according to Google’s ngram, perhaps reflecting our growing tolerance for unconventional values. And the meteorologist on the late news didn’t violate a cultural taboo and offend most viewers by relishing the consequences of climate change. But perhaps there is a place for taboos in UUism. How wonderfully ironic that the most liberal religion might be the context to sustain this rather conservative notion. But if we have “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” then maybe there is a sense in which expressing joy for the ephemeral fruits of global warming is morally problematical, even taboo, for those who profess an abiding concern for the natural world.
Taboo has applications beyond delighting in a balmy day in February. I’ll admit to a surge of satisfaction when I hear the spray plane passing over the flood-irrigated pastures outside of town, making it possible to dine on the back deck without being exsanguinated by bloodthirsty mosquitoes. I’ll confess to enjoying a cool patch of lush, green, newly mown grass on a summer day, knowing that the non-native turf relies on fertilizer and groundwater. I will divulge that on cold mornings, I linger in the steamy microclimate of my shower, an indulgence made possible by burning natural gas. And I’ll even admit to enjoying the Indy 500—an unconscionable celebration of the internal combustion engine, even if the cars run on ethanol, since we all know how much fossil fuel is burnt to produce the corn to make the ethanol (taboos can get pretty complicated).
Hypocritical? Probably. The nuns constantly reminded us that we were sinners, that falling short was an essential quality of being human. The point of confession was acknowledging our failings—and striving to do better. Perhaps guilt is a reliable moral compass, a deep, inarticulate feeling of a gap between what we’ve done and what we value, between who we’ve been and who we could be. Maybe UUs should find a place for what is so often taboo in our congregations—a justifiable, motivating, constructive sense of shame. If we fail to act, even individually and incrementally, to reduce our contribution to climate change, we ought to be ashamed.
We like to say others are “doing the best they can with what they have.” And while we can’t know what another person faces, we can be honest with ourselves. Sometimes I fall short of what is possible. For me, that is a constructive cultivation of guilt, a sensible formulation of sin. Maybe the nuns were onto something after all.
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Jeffrey A. Lockwood, an insect ecologist and writer, is a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming. An online columnist for UU World, he is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laramie, Wyoming. He is the author of several books, including Grasshopper Dreaming, Locust, and Prairie Soul.