Humans are social creatures, and members of Fraternities tend to be especially so. One of the passive side effects of meeting in person is that it continually hones our social skills and our senses of morality and mores. We see this in family and co-worker development as well. If a person continuously meets and works with an intimate group of people who they will rely on and who will rely on them, they observe certain rules of the group to continue to be a positive inclusion within it. Journalist Sebastian Junger explores this theme in wonderful detail in his book Tribe, which I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone who is a member of, well, anything. If a person does something against the “code” of his group, he knows he is going to have to face the others, and the consequences (punishment, shame, ostracization, etc.) are often reason enough to cause him to consider his actions deeply.
What happens then, when the group is separated or not meeting together? In theory, an individual finds belonging through his support of the greater aims and functions of his group. Even when the group is not physically together, its aims, morals, and mores are still HIS aims, morals, and mores, and will govern his actions accordingly. This is core not only to tribes, families, and military units, but Freemasonry as well. We are not only Freemasons when we strap on an apron and sit in a lodge hall; we are Freemasons everywhere. However, it can become all too easy for the aims of our “tribe” to dilute when we are separated and feel less accountable. There is certainly something to be said for “strength in numbers.”
Similarly, Freemasonry is not the “user agreement” that we ought just scroll through, just to click “I agree” so we can get on with installing rings on our fingers and pins on our lapels. When we advance through our Degrees, the beautiful and timeless lessons of morality and philosophy that we find in our Craft IS that “user agreement.” One should not deign to advance in his Degrees unless he has actually read and understood (or more accurately, begun to work and understand) the lessons and principles contained within, which permeate our lives and actions.
Recently, our social needs and professed values had been challenged more than they ever have in living memory. We find ourselves separated physically, our routines disrupted, our finances uncertain, and many of us now have lots of extra time to ponder these things. When it feels like the world has gone mad, it is natural to ask questions and seek some stability and control through understanding. Daily there are new reports presenting statistics and speculations about the COVID-19 pandemic, which come at us from all directions and all kinds of sources and lead us to different conclusions. All of this news brings into sharp relief the old maxim: extraordinary circumstances bring out the best in some and the worst in others.
Nowhere perhaps has this been more apparent recently than on social media platforms. The great thing about social media is that it allows a person to instantly connect with thousands of other people and share ideas, thoughts, and information. The terrible thing about social media is also that it allows a person to instantly connect with thousands of other people and share ideas, thoughts, and information. As people the world over struggle to understand and make sense of what is happening, fear and ignorance are pitted continuously against understanding and truth. When we take to the keyboard, how do we choose what we are going to say?
Many cite their freedom of speech when it comes to what they post online. Indeed, within the rules of whatever platform you are using, you can pretty much say whatever it is you want. But consider for a minute what you actually want to say, and how you are saying it. Venting your frustration by flailing around attempting to attack political parties, studies you don’t agree with, people who are simply doing their best to get through a difficult situation, and generally creating emotional dissonance does not make you a hero, a revolutionary, or somehow “enlightened”. Those with the most Light to share are, traditionally, the most quiet about it. Similarly, making jokes about being sick or dying from COVID-19 is a hard sell for levity considering chances are someone in your audience personally knows someone affected by the virus. It doesn’t matter how “sarcastic,” you say you are, or that everyone needs to “lighten up”; these do not excuse inappropriate behavior. You are entitled to your opinions, but so is everyone else. Using fear and panic as a way to spread opinions or aims is deplorable, and unfortunately, for many it is a practice being harbored and becoming “normal”.
All of these issues stem from how we choose to appropriate and discover the truth. The deafening roar of information coming at us from all sides and all sources is a truly terrifying torrent. So often, we reach out for something familiar to grab onto to keep our heads above water. When we choose to cling to these splinters instead of swim towards rescue or land, our perceived life preservers only become anchors and pull us toward a watery grave. A particular media outlet, personality, or source may be telling us what we want to hear based on our existing beliefs or biases, but we owe it to ourselves (and everyone we interact with) to seek the truth even if it is not easy, or has no immediate personal gain. The desire to be “liked” and accepted is universal, but we cannot allow it to cloud our judgment.
Some of the problems with discovering truth stem from our societal views and mores themselves. The consequence of putting a taboo on discussing religion and politics is that before long, no one actually knows how to discuss religion and politics anymore. When the arts of logic and rhetoric are cast aside, and the impetus to craft a reasoned, researched, and evolving opinion gives way to the temptation of merely yelling one’s opinion more loudly, zealously, and repeatedly. How do you have discourse on anything with someone like this? Sharing reasoning and “whispering good council” (as we are Masonically charged) has little effect on someone who’s heart is so hardened and is staunchly determined not to have their mind changed.
Masonically we endeavor “to learn, to subdue our passions, and improve ourselves.” This is an ideal method for making sense of information and separating truth from fiction. To learn, we gather and compare information from multiple sources. This includes considering sources we may not agree with or who may give information contrary to what we expect or feel we already know. In doing comparative research, we gain a broader perspective on the topic, which will help us better extract the truth. Masonically, we are chipping away at superfluities; alchemically, we are distilling the Prima Materia.
To subdue our passions, we look at our information objectively; that is, seeing things for what they are without attaching our emotions to them. Objective reasoning is much easier said than done. Ask yourself: What is being said? Who is saying it, and are they credible and knowledgeable on the subject? What kinds of biases may be present? Is the information coming from someplace designed to create “shock value” and get people excited? Do I like some information just because it squares with what I already believe, or do facts and reason back it? Could I not only present this information but logically and reasonably defend it? If you find your only defense for a point is an emotional “because I like it/don’t like it” or “because that’s what my tribe says” or “because I said so,” then your passion is overshadowing your desire for truth.
This also holds true if someone asking a question about your position, asking where you got your information from, or disagreeing with you causes you to go on the offensive. As soon as you start name-calling and generalizing (for example: “all of you [expletive of choice] [political alignment of choice] are the same, and a bunch of [insult of choice]”), you’ve tipped your hand as to your motivation: ignorance and fear. Name-calling and verbal bullying have never been Masonic, and Godwin’s Law applies: when someone compares another person to Hitler or the Nazis, they’ve lost any high ground their argument may have had.
Additionally, subduing our passions requires the separation of facts from opinions. Not all articles (this one included) include a bibliography, footnotes, and cited works to help guide the reader. Neither does there exist in the punctuation arsenal an “opinion mark”: a glyph that, when placed at the end of a sentence, designates it as the author’s opinion rather than a statement of fact. Maybe there should be (insert opinion mark here). In any case, careful review with questions like those above, cross reference verification, and looking for biases can help determine what statements are unbiased, and which ones are opinions with particular agendas.
To improve ourselves, we choose the truth that comes out of reasoned and thoughtful research and examination rather than that which comes out of emotion alone. But choosing this truth is not enough: we must apply it to our lives and actions as well. The truth is not always convenient, but it is far better to admit an error in the present than to continue to reinforce it and ultimately suffer for it more in the future.
As we move forward and progress through our current unusual circumstances, some things will stay with us, and some will fall away. It is my earnest hope that we will emerge with a greater appreciation of little things we took for granted: the power of a warm handshake, having a meal with a friend, exchanging smiles. What I hope we leave behind, and what we need to leave behind, is derisiveness. No matter how Freemasonry moves in the future, it is imperative that we move together.
In these current days of separation, where we rely on virtual platforms to stay connected, we cannot consider it the same as a face-to-face conversation. What is posted is posted for all to read, and lingers on a long time after we post it. It is imperative for us as Freemasons to be especially conscious of what we choose to share, whether that is fair or not: many look to us to be an example of truth and a beacon, and Brothers look to each other for good council and Light.
So consider what you build and how your work takes shape. Build thoughtfully and carefully, understanding that your edifice is visible to many by your actions, but especially during times of separation, it is visible by the physical marks you leave with the words you choose. Choose wisely what you sow, as those seeds will grow up around you, and eventually you will be held accountable for your crop, on either this plane or the next.
“Getting back to normal” is chorused by many seeking relief from our current situation. But if we wish to survive and thrive, we can’t let normal become acceptable. Let’s never go back to normal; normal has never suited us, and we have more potential than that. Let us, instead, plant a foot firmly on the path to Light, and press forward to better.
RWB Spencer Hamann is a luthier and musicologist working in northern Illinois. He is an avid woodworker and artificer, and enjoys antique restorations and custom commissions.Curatorship and adding value are core to his personal philosophies. Spencer was Raised in 2013, and served Libertyville Lodge No. 492 as Worshipful Master from 2017-2018. He is the Senior Warden of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183, and serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois as their Grand Representative to Wisconsin, District Education officer for the 1st NE District, and is a Certified Lodge Instructor (CLI). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org