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[Chalice] Paper or Plastic? [Chalice]
Thoughts on the Difficulty of Life

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28:14 minutes - 11.3 MB - Paper or Plastic? .mp3 file.

Presented November 18, 2007, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Opening Words - from Pascal:

"This is my place in the sun. This is how the usurpation of the world began."

This has been, as you know, a remarkably beautiful Autumn. Even though it is nearly Thanksgiving, there are still several beautifully decorated trees for us to enjoy. And the weather has stayed amazingly warm; nearly every day has had a least a few hours in the afternoon where you could go outside and feel warmed by the sun. For nearly a month I have looked out the window or been on my way to class on my bike and have said to myself: ok, I have to get some time outside because with winter coming on this might be the last day of sun and warmth. We have had more than a month of those last days to enjoy the outside and the sun and the beauty of the fall and the leaves.

The word ipseity - from the Latin - ipse - self. In Levinas - the self's enjoyment of itself, elemental pleasure, pleasure at being in the world. Ipseity in Levinas's sense is well expressed in the first half of that famous line from Pascal: this is my place in the sun I am sure you will understand me when I say this fall has given us time and reason to think about ipseity, the self's pleasure in its elemental belonging in the world. I spread out the lawn chair for an hour in the corner of the yard where the sun still is and I move the chair around just enjoying an hour or so to sit there and read and feel the sun warm.

What interrupts ipseity? It is not really the fading of the sun, the dying of the fall, the departure of the beautiful leaves, the advent of winter. All of this brings a different version of ipseity. There is a profound and beautiful ipseity in winter: winter offers the chance to come inside, spend more time inside, slow down, sit by the fire, read, think, play games with the kids, listen to music, spend more time with the animals, drink hot chocolate, or red wine.

Even as I move the lawn chair around the yard to find the one place in the sun, even as the days move into a long, cold winter, I know winter is not what interrupts ipseity. What interrupts ipseity is the simple question asked by the teenager bagging our groceries: paper or plastic?

For me personally, and this might be quite different for you, ten years ago, maybe even five, this question would not have interrupted my ipseity at all. I automatically said plastic because plastic bags have handles and you can crinkle them up and store them more easily or just throw them away.

But now of course we are much more aware of the problems caused by these convenient little plastic bags. They are not biodegradable. They end up in landfills. Petroleum is used in making them. The wind catches them and blows them around everywhere and they become eyesores on the landscape. Plastic bags for our groceries are not a good option. But are paper bags better, a more ethical, more responsible option? Paper involves cutting down trees, and that is the last thing we should be causing to happen. We all want to reduce our use of paper. So which is the better option, paper or plastic, if we think of the term better here not as what is better, easier, more convenient for us, more conducive to our own enjoyment of the world, but better in the sense of more ethical, better for the environment, better for the world we not only enjoy but are responsible for ethically?

Of course this one simple choice frequently posed to us, paper or plastic, represents or is an example of the way ethical questions of our responsibilities to the world constantly interrupt us and call us into question and make us rethink the way we live in the world. Paper or plastic, when it does become an ethical question, represents or is an example of how even the smallest everyday things we do become difficult, part of the difficulty of life, when we commit to trying to live our lives in an ethical and a responsible way. As Levinas, that great thinker of the ethical and of ethical responsibilities insists, ethical responsibilities multiply as they are assumed.

On this I think we can agree that Levinas is absolutely right. When paper or plastic becomes an ethical question for us, so many other situations and decisions in life have become ethical as well, or they soon will be.

Coffee, for example. Like hundreds of millions of my fellow human beings, one of the first things I do in the morning is make a pot of coffee. What a simple, innocent thing to do. Some of us are not even fully awake when we make that pot of coffee in the morning, but on the other hand some people would insist that we better wake up and realize that this too, this simple business of making coffee, is an important ethical decision. Can I ethically use the cheap stuff from the large multinational companies, the Folger's or the Maxwell House, or am I wiping out the rain forest and supporting the exploitation of the working poor by the corrupt oligarchs of Colombia when I do so? Is the only really ethical option for having our coffee in the morning using so-called "fair-trade coffee?" Is this the only way we can be sure that there is no human exploitation involved in our own simple enjoyment of a daily cup of coffee or two? All we want to do is enjoy our coffee; we don't want to exploit anyone in the process. That we have to think about the fact that we may well be doing one by doing the other is part of the difficulty of life.

Of course paper or plastic, Folger's or fair trade coffee, these are just the beginnings of the dilemma, of the difficulties that beset us once the world is the scene not only of our ipseity but of our ever increasing ethical responsibilities. Coffee, after all, is just one thing we consume. What about meat? Should we all really be vegetarians? Can we justify eating beef if it takes so much of the world's resources to grow the grain that fattens the cow for our eating pleasure? It might be more ethical to eat chicken and pork, except that in the factory farms the chickens and the pigs are kept in such squalid and miserable conditions and are unable even to move around, let alone have a normal life. We just want to eat, but we don't want to be associated with, or be the cause of, misery and suffering for our fellow animals. Our ethical responsibilities drive us to the wall and force us to wonder if we can do one without doing the other. We begin to really worry about the truth of that line from Pascal Levinas likes so much: "This is my place in the sun. This is how the usurpation of the world began."

Can we even clothe ourselves without wrapping the misery of our fellow human beings around us like a scarf in winter? A generation ago or so if we wore a sweater we could do so in good conscience relatively confident that the person who made it lived a life not so far different from our own, and was probably a union worker with a decent living wage who toiled reasonable hours in safe conditions. We would be dreaming if we thought that today about most of the things we wear. I went through my sweater collection, which is considerable because I hate to be cold. I have two sweaters made in America and 25 made in places such as China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, etc. It is almost certain that whatever we wear was made by someone whose life is much more similar to the life of the working poor whose conditions Marx decried 150 years ago than to our own life. Should we only buy things we know were made under humane and respectable conditions? How would we go about doing that? Should we give away all of our clothes that were made in places like China and Vietnam?

And I do believe Quincy has a new Starbucks in town. Great. We can finally live out our ipseity by indulging in a four dollar latte, but is that ethical? Can we justify it by the fact that Starbucks provides even part-time employees with health care benefits? But can we in good conscience give our money to yet another American multinational corporation that is spreading its franchises around the world just like McDonald's and Burger King? Sure, we enjoy the latte, but aren't we feeding the monster at the same time? Aren't we helping multinational corporations usurp the world?

And of course we absolutely have to change our ways and use as little of the earth's resources as we possibly can to live ethically on the earth. Of course we want to drive vehicles that are small, get great gas mileage, use little gas and pollute as little as possible. You'd think the Unitarian minister in this town of all people would drive a small hybrid car. I have a convertible, because I have to enjoy my ipseity, I have to have my place in the sun, even when I am driving. Now how can I justify that?

And even if you do have a hybrid car, what about your lawn mower? Did you know one of the worst, most polluting, most gas guzzling things you have is probably your lawn mower? This fact about lawn mowers caused me this summer to pull out of my carriage house my old-fashioned lawn mower, the scissors type with the blades that move around. I actually cut my grass with that a couple times. It doesn't use any gas and it is a lot quieter, but it is a lot of work. If some very warm summer day I die of a heart attack pushing that old thing around my yard and everyone else around town is asking "now what was that long-haired weirdo doing using that old thing when he had a perfectly good power mower?" you at least will know that I was just trying to live ethically on the earth.

Ethical responsibilities, as Levinas constantly says, increase as they are assumed. First it's just paper over plastic or the attempt to remember your own bags when you go to the store, and then it's coffee, and everything you eat and wear and what you drive, and how you live. It's difficult to undo that usurpation of the world that begins when we all claim our place in the sun and begin to enjoy our own ipseity. We try to tread so lightly upon the earth and use as little as possible and harm as little as possible it's almost as if we would like to disappear.

As we try to tread lightly, leave almost no footprint, try to live ethically, almost make ourselves disappear, we might begin to feel guilty even for living. This is when we meet Nietzsche who says to us: "Feeling guilty, eh? Don't tell me you have been listening to those ascetic priests again? What is the meaning of these ascetic ideals? People who talk about religion and ethics are life deniers; they are against life. Ascetic priests are artists in guilt feelings. They try to convince you that human life, your life, is a wrong road. What do you have to feel guilty for? There is nothing of virtue in denying life and making yourself disappear, like a hibernating animal. Snap out of it. Away with this inverted world. Shake off this distrust of yourself. Live your life. Enjoy. Take a deep drink from the joys of life. There has never been enough joy. Now go get yourself a latte. Cut your grass the normal way so you can go take a drive in your convertible and enjoy the sun."

©2007 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2007. Paper or Plastic? Thoughts on the Difficulty of Life, /talks/20071118.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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