If you wanted to take a master class in becoming a more full, better, understanding human being, it would be nearly impossible to find two more expert instructors than the Noble Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his colleague and longtime friend Robert V. Taylor. On paper, the two may seem quite different from one another, but over the course of their 30-plus years of friendship they have become a vital team in advocating for a more compassionate human race.
Instinct had the rare and privileged opportunity to sit down with both men to discuss Robert’s new book, A New Way To Be Human (of which the Archbishop wrote the foreword), as well as the push for equality worldwide, skepticism toward religion and, yes, even Lady Gaga.
The book, A New Way To Be Human, while faith-based, seems to not necessarily be religion-based. Robert, was that something you consciously did to keep the message broad?
Robert Taylor: Absolutely. And I think that comes out of my experience of decades of inter-spiritual work. The book is really framed as a book that draws on the ancient wisdom that is present in a variety of spiritual traditions, and what those actually mean as we incorporate those into our lives into this journey to being a better human. I’m also deeply aware that more people—both those connected with religious congregations and those who are not—increasingly draw on practices from a variety of traditions that enhance their own sense of well being, their own happiness and their own sense of purpose.
So would you then say that, if your whole thesis is focused on becoming a better human being, that this is possible even without a strong sense of religion?
RT: Oh, absolutely! I do not think that religion has a mandate on how to be fully human and fully alive. I think it’s fair to say that there are many wonderful things that religions around the world have done and continue to do, and I don’t wish to diminish that in any way. But I think it’s also fair to say that many of us have been deeply affected by the less-admirable instincts of religious leaders and institutions. And it’s hard to separate those out, but they seldom have anything to do with what’s at the core of their spiritual message, and I’m thinking specifically of religion’s that demean women. I think, too, to many of us who are LGBT who have experienced the unmasked hatred of many religious leaders toward gay and lesbian people. To me, those examples are a complete abuse and misuse of religion. And it’s part of what sours so many people.
What do you say to someone who does not believe in a higher power or does not believe in God? Maybe that person is gay and says, “Look at all these horrible things that have happened to the gays.” Or people using God as a way to say that you should not be gay; what do you say to that person?
RT: I’ve certainly experienced that. That was the message of the South African government who used the message of apartheid, claiming that it was the will of God. I’ve experienced it as a gay man. My journey has been coming to terms with the fact that I was led to believe that there was something inherently wrong and inferior about me. And I don’t believe that that is what the holy is about. That may be what religious leaders who try to mediate religion and spiritual wisdom have a self-interest in. Each one of us is a spiritual being and we’re at different points in that journey. And at the heart of that is the journey to love. Love is the only thing that matters, and love begins with caring about your own being. Love leads to acts of compassion, which leads us to our interconnectedness.
I once had a young reporter come to me and he wanted me to say that the spirituality of LGBT people was better than that of anyone else. I wasn’t going to go there because I don’t believe that, but I said to him that no matter who we are—as an immigrant, as a political exile, as a male, as a woman, as a person of color—we each have something particular about our experience of life. And that question isn’t whether someone’s experience of spirituality is better or not, it’s how does our experience allow us to have empathy and understanding for others? And that opens a path to oneness, to interconnection. And that, I believe, is where there’s enormous spiritual truth in wisdom.
Desmond Tutu: I don’t have anything much to add, except that we have strange images of God. And one of them is of God who is waiting to clobber us. And we don’t seem to understand the image of a God who says, “I created you because I loved you. And you don’t have to do anything to win my love.” We turn it around and say, “I love you only when you are loveable.” God says, “You are loveable because I love you.” And there’s nothing that’s going to change that. You can be the lousiest person. [Laughs]
One of the most basic principles in the book, albeit a hard act to follow, is simply treating one another with love and compassion. Given that and what you see as the growing definition of “inclusion,” could this book be seen as setting forth an action plan for equality?
RT: Yes, absolutely. At least that’s my hope, that people will be able to internalize the message of the book in such a way that it has an effect on what they do and say. Realize that every time we use our voice to speak for inclusion, every time we take action, we become part of that symphony of voices. Not only do we need each other desperately as human beings, but the world actually needs the voice and actions of each one of us...There is a spiritual guru within each of us and we need to be in touch with that wisdom. It frees up new heart-space and compassion for how we think of ourselves and how we are in the world.
Is there one practice we could all begin doing daily to start making those long-lasting, larger changes?
RT: I would say that the grounding practice for me is the power of connecting stories. When you and I know the arc of our story and we begin to discover that the stories of our life reveal wisdom and truth, we actually need to be sharing the stories. When we do, we often find encounters with the most unlikeliest of people. It changes your entire experience of being human.
How do you two see the future with what we’re all going through across the world, as it’s a pretty difficult time for many right now?
RT: It is a very difficult time for people economically. But we’re also in this amazing moment in human history where we are, in different places, seeing the question of what it means to be human and what it means to be fully alive. You see it in the Arab Spring, where people are saying my voice is important, my imagination is important...And certainly in the U.S., questions of: Are gay, lesbian people fully included in society and civil rights? So all of these questions are bubbling. And I say in the book that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke a lot about that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. And I think he’d be right. I suggest that the moral arc of the universe bends towards inclusion, and that the spiritual path is always about who’s included. Look at many of the great religious traditions and the big battles have always been fought about who is in and who is out. And the book is an invitation to say we are all in in our magnificence. We are all love.
DT: There is far too much inequity in the world. And we can be a better world. Why should we have so much poverty when we spend billions on arms? You have children dying because they do not have clean water. We know we could ensure that every single child did, in fact, have clean water to drink. Every single child could afford the cheap vaccinations that ensure that you don’t get small pox, and so forth.
I keep saying that I find young people particularly inspiring...because, almost universally, they are idealistic. Do you know how many dream about a world that is differently ordered to now? They speak about how it is possible to have a world without war. They are engaged in a great deal of campaigning for a new kind of attitude to the gift that God gives us. Young people are saying, “Hey, what kind of a world are you going to leave us? Are you going to leave us a world in which no one can survive because of warring? The atmosphere is being polluted.” There’s only one world. Destroy it and you’re done for.
RT: I was with [the Archbishop] in Tacoma last year and he spoke to a stadium of 13,000 or 15,000 college kids. I’d been in that same stadium a few months before for a Lady Gaga concert, and I want to tell you that he was as much of a rockstar as Lady Gaga was. [Laughs]
DT: I dress slightly more conservatively. [Laughs]
RT: Just a little more conservatively. [Laughs]
Archbishop, you always project such a good sense of humor. How important is laughter to you?
DT: I think coming out of the crucible that was South Africa, if you didn’t laugh, you cried. And I do a fair amount of crying as well. But it was, I think, a way of coping. But more than that, it was also a way of helping to diffuse the situations that were very, very tense...Starting off a sermon with a funny story, it diffused things and got people being more in charge of their emotions than they otherwise would have been. But it’s also a way of surviving. I have a family who takes me down a peg or two when I’m feeling a little hoity-toity. My wife had a bumper sticker in our bedroom which read, “You’re entitled to your own opinion.” So I can’t take myself too seriously.
RT: I think that humor and this cultivating sense of joy and delight in the everyday, we often think about life as these sort of big, separate moments of transformation. I talk in the book about cultivating gladness and joy and delight, and we start to not take ourselves too seriously.
Robert, even though you and the Archbishop have a long friendship at this point, does hearing him reinforce his support for equality and particularly for the LGBT community still strike a chord for you?
RT: I love him for it! [Laughs] I remember asking him before apartheid ended and before [Nelson] Mandela was released, I said to him, “When are you going to speak out about LGBT issues?” And he said to me, “Robert, as soon as we have defeated apartheid I will speak.” And he’s been true to that word. And I think he is a person who understands timing, to the degree that he knew that as much as he might have wanted to speak out on LGBT issues, that that would have been another reason for the South African government to essentially discredit him. And at that point he was the only significant, non-imprisoned, anti-apartheid voice that existed within the country who was of global stature. But he kept his word.
A New Way To Be Human: 7 Spiritual Pathways To Becoming Fully Alive is available now. For more information, click here.
(Photo courtesy PR By The Book)