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[Chalice] "You're not a thing at all," [Chalice]
or "The political implications of Dunbar's Number."

Presented May 12, 2019, by Doug Muder

Opening Words

The opening words express the tension between two of our strongest desires: We want to belong, but we also want to be individuals. The theme from Cheers says:

"You want to go where people know people are all the same. You want to go where everybody knows your name."


An important thing to know about stories is that you're never just stuck with them. If a story feels wrong to you, you can fix it; retell it your own way so that it comes out better. This morning I thought I'd demonstrate by telling you a story I don't like very much, and then we can talk about how to fix it.

The story I picked comes from a really old Disney cartoon called The Flying Mouse. It's so old that my father might have watched it in a theater when he was a boy.

It goes like this: Once there was a little mouse who dreamed about flying like a bird. He'd watch the birds and imagine that he could fly and do tricks in the air, and that someday he'd fly with the birds and they'd all applaud the things he could do. But the other mice said, "Mice don't fly, so that's never going to happen."

One day he rescued a butterfly from a spider's web, and it turned out that the butterfly was a fairy in disguise. The fairy was so grateful that she granted him a wish, and he knew immediately what he wanted: wings. So the fairy touched him with her wand and he sprouted wings and could fly.

The first thing he did was fly up where the birds were doing tricks for each other, and he started trying to loop and spin. But the birds all thought he was ugly and clumsy, so they laughed at him until he went away.

Then he thought he'd show off his new wings to his brothers and sisters, but the first thing they saw was his winged shadow on the ground, so they got scared and ran home and wouldn't open the door. That made the mouse really sad, so he flew off to a cave to be alone. But he wasn't alone, because the cave had a colony of bats in it. At first they think he's one of them, but when he tells them, no, he's a mouse, they think he's claiming to be something better than they are, so get mad and start trying to hurt his feelings. "You're not a mouse. Mice don't have wings," they tell him. "So if you're not a bat, you're not anything at all."

And this is the scary part. The bats start dancing around him, casting their long bat shadows, and taunting him with a song.

You think a bat's a bum thing
A silly or a dumb thing.
But at least a bat is something,
And you're not a thing at all.

The chorus is all the bats growling at him:

You're nothing but a nothing.
You're nothing but a nothing.
You're nothing but a nothing.
You're not a thing at all.

The mouse is terrified, and bolts out of that cave as fast as his wings will carry him. He goes straight to the fairy, tells her how terrible everything has been since he got wings, and he begs her to change him back. And she does: She touches him with the wand again, and the wings are gone. He's back to normal.

So he goes back home, where everybody recognizes him now and is glad to see him. And that's supposed to be a happy ending.

Well, I don't like that ending. First, because the little mouse loses his dream, and second, because if you end the story like that, it teaches a lesson that I don't particularly like: The story seems to be saying that you shouldn't be like the little mouse. You shouldn't have big dreams. You shouldn't try to become something nobody expects you to be. Because if you do, nobody will like you and you won't belong anywhere. You'll be nothing but a nothing.

I don't think that's a good lesson to learn. I think you should have big dreams, and you should try to do amazing things, even if nobody expects you to. But the more I think about this story, the more I think there is a good lesson in there, if we change it up a little. In my version, the message isn't that you shouldn't be like the little mouse, but that we as a community shouldn't be like the birds or the mice or the bats.

Think about the birds: A newcomer shows up and wants to play their game, but he's not perfect at it right away. So they don't encourage him or teach him, they make fun of him until he goes away. We don't want to be like that.

And the mice. Someone they've known a long time changes in a way they don't expect, so they're afraid of him now. They won't look at him or listen to him, they just run away and hide until he leaves. We don't want to be like that.

And when somebody a little different comes to the bats, they don't help him, they bully him and scare him and chase him away. We don't want to be like that.

So how do we want to be? Imagine you're the little mouse. You've dreamed about something all your life. It seemed impossible, but then it happened. How would you want your friends and your family and all the people around you to react?

If it was me, I'd want my community to be happy for me.

So let's retell the story to make make it come out that way. I think we can leave it alone until the mouse goes back to the fairy the second time. But rather than just take the wings back, I want the fairy to be wiser than that. So in my version she tells him: "I know your brothers and sisters didn't react very well the first time they saw your wings. But maybe you should go back and give them another chance." So the little mouse does that. This time he doesn't swoop down on them from above. He lands a ways off and approaches them slowly. "Hey," he says, "it's still me. But I have wings now." And they get curious and come up to him and look at his wings. They say, "Look at you! All your life you've wanted to fly, and now you can. Isn't that wonderful?"

I think that's a happy ending.


The first reading is from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T. S. Eliot.

Most people remember Eliot as an English poet, and an Anglican, but actually he grew up as a Unitarian in St. Louis. His grandfather founded the first Unitarian Church in St. Louis and journeyed north on the Mississippi River to preach the organizing sermon for this Unitarian Congregation in Quincy, as well.

And I have known the eyes already, known them all--
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
     And how should I presume?

The second reading is from The Company of Strangers by Paul Seabright

This morning I went out and bought a shirt. There is nothing very unusual in that: across the world perhaps 20 million people did the same. What is more remarkable is that I, like most of these 20 million, had not informed anybody in advance of what I was intending to do. Yet the shirt I bought, although a simple item by the standards of modern technology, represents a triumph of international cooperation. The cotton was grown in India, from seeds developed in the United States; the artificial fiber in the thread comes from Portugal and the material in the dyes from at least six other countries; the collar linings come from Brazil, and the machinery for the weaving, cutting, and sewing from Germany; the shirt itself was made up in Malaysia. The project of making a shirt and delivering it to me in Toulouse has been a long time in the planning, since well before the morning two winters ago when an Indian farmer first led a pair of ploughing bulls across his land on the red plains outside Coimbatore. Engineers in Cologne and chemists in Birmingham were involved in the preparation many years ago. Most remarkably of all, given the obstacles it has had to surmount to be made at all and the large number of people who have been involved along the way, it is a very stylish and attractive shirt (for what little my judgment in these matters may be worth). I am extremely pleased at how the project has turned out. And yet I am quite sure nobody knew that I was going to be buying a shirt of this kind today; I hardly knew it myself even the day before. Every single one of these people who has been laboring to bring my shirt to me has done so without knowing or indeed caring anything about me. To make their task even more challenging, they, or people very much like them, have been working at the same time to make shirts for all of the other 20 million people of widely different sizes, tastes, and incomes, scattered over six continents, who decided independently of each other to buy shirts at the same time I did.

. . . Citizens of industrialized market economies have lost their sense of wonder at the fact that they can decide spontaneously to go out in search of food, clothing, furniture, and thousands of other useful attractive, frivolous, or life-saving items, and that when they they do so, somebody will have anticipated their actions and thoughtfully made such items available for them to buy. For our ancestors who wandered the plains in search of game, or scratched the earth to grow grain under a capricious sky, such a future would have seemed truly miraculous, and the possibility that it might come about without the intervention of any overall controlling intelligence would have seemed incredible.

. . . One way to capture the paradoxical quality of [the human capacities that have made such cooperation possible] is to think of them as embodying a kind of tunnel vision. By "tunnel vision", I mean the capacity to play one's part in the great complex enterprise of creating the prosperity of a modern society without knowing or caring very much about the overall outcome. . . . Our activities are part of a network; we can play our part just by knowing how to behave toward our neighbors in the network.


Deb and I got here from Massachusetts by driving our own car. In 21st century America, that's the rugged individualist way to travel. Nobody has to sell you a ticket or put you on their schedule. You just get in your car go. We did it ourselves.

And yet, our trip required an even larger cooperating community than Paul Seabright's shirt. Wherever we happened to get hungry, someone had thoughtfully established a restaurant, which orchestrated a flow of food from all over the country. Wherever we needed fuel, there was a gas station, whose oil may have come from anywhere in the world. Wherever we got tired of driving, someone had built a hotel. Then there was the car itself, and highway system. I can't even guess how many people it took to make them.

And most incredible of all, we were able to share those highways with thousands of other drivers, all of whom were traveling to their own destinations and had no reason to care whether or not we made it to Quincy. We drove 70 miles an hour or more, and often passed within a few feet of each other. In another era, that would be a daredevil stunt, but we all did it with only a fraction of our attention, while we talked or listened to the radio or planned what we would do when we got here.

So yes, we did it ourselves. And yet, our trip was also the result of the cooperation of thousands and thousands of total strangers. It's miraculous, but it's also common.

The reason I called your attention to that miracle this morning is that I want to think a little about how the magic works, how the machinery behind it shapes our lives in ways that we also don't think about much, and what all that has to do with social justice.

One thing is clear: Biological evolution didn't build human beings to participate in a seven-billion-person global economy.

The anthropologist Robin Dunbar looked at chimpanzees and bonobos and other primates, and noted a correlation between a primate species' brain-to-body ratio and the size of its social groups. He plugged humans into his correlation and came up a result that is now known as Dunbar's Number: Looking just at our brains, you'd expect humans to live in tribes of about 150.

That biological limitation shows up in all sorts of places; for example, church size. In a congregation of less than 150 with a full-time minister, it's possible for that minister to have a personal relationship with everybody, and for just about everybody to know just about everybody else. Beyond 150, though, you start to need some organizational structure that a smaller church can do without.

So if I didn't negotiate my way across the country with the sheer power of my primate brain, how did I do it? Let's just focus on restaurants for a moment. In a town I've never seen before, I walk into a restaurant I didn't know existed until I saw their billboard five minutes ago. A waitress I've never met asks me what I want, and ten minutes or so later she brings me something pretty close to what I expected.

Why did that work? Because the waitress and I, and the cook and busboy and dishwasher I didn't see, and all the people involved in bringing the food to the restaurant -- we're all working from the same script. It's a staged interaction, and we all know our parts. There's a little room for improvisation, but not that much. If the restaurant isn't busy, the waitress and I might chat a little about the weather or traffic, but probably not about abortion or the state of our marriages.

We improvise, but we have what Paul Seabright called "tunnel vision"; we stay in our roles. Staying in our roles gives us power, but there is also a price.

Once when I was a student, I was waited on by a middle-aged woman whose makeup was not quite managing to cover the bruises on her face. It was clear to me that somebody had been hitting her. But it was also clear that she had put some effort into hiding that fact. So I didn't pry. We stayed in our roles, waitress and customer. And so we had an interaction that was effective in its purpose, but was still far less than an expression of our full humanity.

So the scripted roles we play both empower and limit us. If you let them, they can fill your entire life, and crowd out your individuality completely. In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy constructs a portrait of a proper Russian gentleman of the 19th century. In the course of his middle-aged life Ivan Ilych has faithfully fulfilled all his duties: as son to his parents, parent to his children, husband to his wife, subordinate to his superiors, and superior to his subordinates. He has played the role of friend very correctly and properly, doing what was required of him without complaint or resistance. In short, no one has any reason to object to the behavior of Ivan Ilych.

But now he is dying, and his death is perhaps the first thing in his adult life that he is taking personally. He doesn't want to just play the role of dying Russian gentleman. He wants, just this once, to be himself, and to be surrounded by people who can relate to him as one human to another.

That desire is so out of step with the rest of his life that he can't even articulate it effectively. None of the other characters grasp it, or understand why he's frustrated with them. All express a level of sympathy appropriate to the roles they play in his life: wife, child, colleague, patron, protege, friend. All believe their roles require them to support his hope, so they pretend to believe in his eventual recovery, and refuse to dwell on the possibility that he might die. And so Ivan Ilych faces death -- at the center of Russian society, surrounded by all the trappings of a happy family and a successful life . . . and yet, at the same time, almost entirely alone.

Most of us, I suspect, don't get quite that lost. Instead, we manage to bifurcate our lives into a small inner circle of people we can more-or-less be ourselves with, and everyone else, who we deal with in more formal, scripted ways.

But that bifurcation creates its own tension, as we act out parts that may not correspond to our inner experiences. Your desire to belong and your desire to be yourself inevitably conflict to some extent. Your daily scripts may demand that you appear cheerful when you are anything but, that you pretend to like people you actually detest, or that you appear to take seriously ideas and points of view that you entirely reject.

I once took a job because it allowed me considerable freedom to do my own research. It fit well with my essentially monastic, introverted nature. And then I became project leader, and had to perform the role of salesman when I represented the project to the management that controlled our funding. It felt like an act.

Sometimes we are acting even with the people who are closest to us. Parents sometimes confide to me that their role requires them to project a sense of wisdom and authority and certainty that they do not feel. Spouses may have to reassure each other of their love at precisely those moments when they are feeling the most doubts.

It's no wonder that psychologists report hearing two common complaints: One is feeling invisible, as if no one sees the real you. And the other is feeling like an imposter, that people see only a mask you wear, and will feel betrayed if they ever find out who you really are.

But in addition to the psychological aspect of these issues, there is also a profound social and political effect. Because not everybody gets to play every role. Some roles are reserved for certain kinds of people. And so we all get categorized, formulated in a phrase and pinned to a wall, as Eliot says in Prufrock.

There's an inherent injustice there, first because separate is never really equal, and second because the categories never manage to cover everybody. If you don't match the ideal description of any category, you have a difficult choice: You can hide who you really are, or you can risk not being a thing at all.

Sometimes we recognize one of those injustices and try to change the way we think about some particular group. But even as our ideas change, our scripts often don't keep up.

For example, it's been more than half a century since the Supreme Court told us that the races have to have equal opportunities. And I think by now a fairly large majority of Americans accept that idea at some level. And yet, when Barack Obama took office, it soon became apparent that many Americans knew no script in which a black man played the role of president. And so everything he did looked strange and inappropriate to them, even if white presidents had been doing the same things for decades. How wrong it seemed that his family lived in such luxury in the White House, that Marines would get wet while holding an umbrella over his head, or that he sometimes put his feet up on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

In the 2020 campaign, we are still struggling to find a script for a woman to be presidential, so that we can talk about her campaign without being diverted into a discussion of her hair or her clothing or the timbre of her voice.

The scripts for men and women interacting in the workplace have been reworked extensively during my lifetime, but they're still not right. They still leave too many openings for inequity and abuse. Many of us also still have inadequate scripts for dealing with stay-at-home Dads, or with men in traditionally female professions.

When gays and lesbians started claiming their place in society and became less willing to hide their sexuality, it became apparent that I (and many straights like me) had no scripts in which men walked down the street holding hands, or women kissed in a way that was more than just a polite peck. How should I react: stare, look away, act oblivious? That indulgent warmth we stereotypically feel for young lovers -- can two women evoke that? Can two men be a cute old couple? No one had ever taught me these scripts, so I just didn't know. Developing them took longer than I like to admit.

Often, what appears to be bigotry can be more accurately described as resentment at being thrown off-script, and a refusal to improvise. In practical terms, that kind of stubbornness will usually put people on the same team with bigots, even if they don't feel bigoted internally. They aren't aware of hating anybody, they just don't want to change.

The "again" in Make America Great Again has always been vague, but I think that for many, it refers to a time when the scripts they were brought up with still worked, and they felt confident that they knew how to play the roles that would be expected of them. "Political correctness" is another term that I think can't be objectively defined, for similar reasons. Political correctness is whatever force interrupts you in mid-script, and tells you, no matter how many times you have done this before, that you can't do it any more; the behavior you know is no longer acceptable.

It's easy for us to feel superior when we see people struggle with scripts that we've already updated. They are so hidebound, so inflexible, so ignorant and lacking in compassion.

But the other side of that card is how humbling it feels to run into the limits of my own scripts, and to realize, either in retrospect or maybe even while it's happening, that I'm screwing up an interaction. I'm being insensitive, and offending people I didn't mean to offend, because I've never learned and never figured out how to act in this situation.

That recently happened to one of my colleagues at UU World in a very public way. One of the other contributing editors wrote a piece called "After L, G, and B" about her struggle to not say or do the wrong things when dealing with the trans or gender-nonbinary people in her life. As it turned out, the article itself offended enough people in the trans community that the magazine felt it needed to post an apology.

I haven't talked to her about it -- we both work from home and our paths seldom cross -- but I can imagine how devastating that must have been. When you write for publication, you always imagine readers being impressed with your article, and the magazine being proud to have published it. How terrible it must feel when the exact opposite happens.

As I read her article I wondered: If I had seen this coming out of my own word processor, would I have realized there was something wrong with it?

I don't know. Whatever my ideas say, my scripts for dealing with gender transition or gender ambiguity are still not very good. I make mistakes of both commission and omission. Sometimes I say or do something clumsy, probably offending or shutting out people unintentionally. Other times my lack of confidence causes me to shy away, so that I fail to reach out, or to be there for someone who needs me.

Your limitations may show up somewhere else. But I would venture to claim that we all at one time or another have had the experience of acting out a script that is out of date, that no longer matches up with the kinds of people we want to be. We may mean well, but we don't always do well.

I wish I could tell you that I'm going to solve that problem in the few minutes I have left. But I think the idea that there's a solution, and that someday we're going to get done with this process, is itself part of the problem. It's a wonderful fantasy to imagine that somewhere there is a perfect rulebook, or an ideal set of categories that precisely and fairly cover all the types of people there are. Once you learn those categories and the right scripts for dealing with each of them, then you'd be done. You can go anywhere, meet anybody, never screw up, and never treat anybody unjustly.

That's never going to happen. The reason there's never going to be a complete and perfect set of categories is that the categories themselves don't come from Nature. They come from the limitations of our human brains. Fundamentally, categories and roles and scripts are a kluge. They're a trick by which culture shoehorns a 7-billion-person global society into brains that evolved to handle 150-person tribes.

We may tell ourselves that "the Lord God created the races", as the original judge put it in Loving v. Virginia, to justify upholding and enforcing the law that made interracial marriage a crime. We might, like Plato, imagine a world of ideal forms, of things as they ought to be, and find fault with anything or anyone who doesn't match up. We may quote Genesis when it proclaims "Male and female created he them" and so treat as abominations people who are intersex or transsexual or who just want no part of the whole binary division of the species.

But that's all a myth. God didn't create these categories. Human beings did, because we just don't have brain enough to cope with 7 billion individuals. That's never, ever going to come out right.

So what I want to close with isn't a solution, it's an attitude and a way of framing this human predicament.

First, I think we need to recognize that no matter how necessary it might be to simplify our experience somehow, there's always going to be an injustice in putting people into categories and dealing with them through roles and scripts. That's an injustice that we both suffer and inflict on others.

That injustice causes us pain. It makes us feel less at home in the world, less accepted by others, less appreciated and understood. And I think that the key to minimizing the amount of injustice we do and pain we cause is to come into right relationship with our own pain.

One way to be in wrong relationship is to be too self-centered, to think that because we suffer too, we don't need to concern ourselves with the suffering of others, even if it's greater than ours. So what if the world wasn't built for you? It wasn't built for me either. There may be ways in which men or whites or straights or other privileged people experience injustice, but that can't give us license to ignore the greater injustices endured by others.

Another wrong relationship is to ignore our pain, because repressed pain gets in the way of compassion, and sometimes erupts as anger. I'll give you a very mundane example: If I'm trying to deny how tired I am, I'll get annoyed if someone else yawns. How dare they remind me of the thing I'm trying not to notice!

When someone else's pain reminds us of our own, and brings to our attention suffering that we've been trying to repress, it can seem as if they're causing us pain, rather than just reminding us of pain we already have. And so we can find ourselves getting angry with precisely the people who most need our understanding and our help.

But when you are in right relationship to your own suffering, when you can acknowledge it without getting lost in it, then your own pain can connect you to others rather than separate you from them. It evokes compassion rather than anger.

None of us is precisely who we appear to be. None of us is exactly what society wants us to be. None of us fits perfectly into the box where we've been placed.

Let us always remember that when we meet someone who is struggling to get out of a box they feel trapped in. If we do, then maybe we can find it in ourselves to extend them the grace of being seen as individuals.

©2019 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug 2019. "You're not a thing at all," or "The political implications of Dunbar's Number., /talks/20190512.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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