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Social Impact Authors: How & Why Davidson Loehr Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

Through translating the two basic questions of almost all religions into ordinary language an average 18-year-old can understand, spelling out the “currency” in which life should be measured:

a. “Who, at my best, am I?”

b. “How should I live, so that when I look back I can be glad I lived that way?”

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Davidson Loehr.

Davidson Loehr is a Renaissance Man, philosopher, minister, and lifelong heretic. Raised in the Des Moines area, he became a professional musician at 16, playing rock and roll, dance music, standards and jazz with several bands. He enlisted in the Army in January 1964 and spent 43 powerful and memorable months, going through the Army’s best NCO Academy (in the building that had been General Patton’s headquarters in Bad Tolz, Germany), then six months in Officer Candidate School. 53 weeks in Vietnam were spent as The Vietnam Entertainment Officer for five months, working with all the USO shows that toured the country. But he began to feel cowardly and ashamed with his cushy job and office in Saigon, while all his OCS buddies were in the field. So he transferred to the field and spent his final seven months as a combat photographer and press officer assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Xuan Loc. He looks back on those seven months as sacred — the first five, just a whole lot of fun. Like many vets, Davidson was lost when he came home in the fall of 1967. He finished his music theory degree at the University of Michigan, then spent a year at North Texas University to learn jazz arranging, before deciding that he really didn’t have any great gifts in music. So he opened a studio doing high-priced wedding and portrait photography in Ann Arbor. Here, he had a gift, and was an award-winning portrait photographer. But after a few years he got bored, sold the studio and left photography behind as he had left music behind. Who, at his best, was he? How should he live, so that when he looked back he could be glad he had lived that way? These were the two questions that would direct the rest of his life. He had never been a fan of religion — always seemed dishonest supernatural blather. But when he finally met a real minister and preacher, he realized that religion, if you could take it deeply, symbolically and metaphorically, could lead to good answers to his two questions — questions which turn out to be central to almost everyone.

And so: 23 years as a liberal minister, he became a Fellow in the Jesus Seminar in 1992 (though never a Christian or theist), authored a book of heretical sermons that sold 10,000 copies in 2005, then after retiring in 2009 got involved with the new International Big History Association, has presented papers at their meetings and was asked to write a chapter for their forthcoming book Science, Religion and Deep Time, due out in February 2022. His chapter’s title shows that his interests are all over the board: “The Nature of Humans, Science, and Religion”. But his drive, his love, is to try and serve others who struggle with those Two Questions. And those are the questions that are at the center of the wonderful and engaging stories in this great book.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

Three children’s stories come to mind, and they became linked for me:

The Emperor’s New Clothes — The lesson for me was that we should have the courage to name the lies and pretenses others just go along with.

Superboy — We have within us far more power than we think. But the magic words don’t include “Shazam”. The magic words are Courage and Duty. Remember that Character and Behavior are the “currencies” in which the value of our lives is measured. (Money is far too cheap a currency for measuring the worth of life.)

The Little Red Hen — The lesson was “If you don’t contribute you can’t share. We owe the world our positive contributions.”

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

Well, it happened long before I ever had a career, but is still wonderfully powerful. It’s a little long, but a great story. In the summer after 5th grade, I went to Y Camp, as I had for several years. They had a cliff-climbing contest, and I was actually going to come in second. I never had any real athletic ability, so this was like my Olympics. I reached for a tree root to pull myself up, but the root was about the diameter of a human hair, so I went tumbling down the cliff, cracking my right knee on a rock on the way down. A week or so later I could only bend my right leg to a 90-degree angle. The doctor said I had torn the cartilage in my knee, and put my leg in a full straight cast.

A couple of weeks later I began 6th grade. I was asked to babysit a group of kindergartners while their parents attended a PTA meeting. I couldn’t sit down easily since I couldn’t bend my leg, so walked around in front of the group. One of the kids asked, “Who are you?” Hmm: an audience. I looked down at the teacher’s desk in front of me and saw a hat pin lying there. Hmm. So I looked out at the kids and said “I’ll tell you who I am, but you have to keep it a secret. You can’t tell anyone.” Ooh, that was interesting! “I’m Superboy!” I could feel the doubt. “You’re not Superboy!”

So I picked up the hat pin, showed it to them, and said “OK, watch this!” and jammed the hatpin into my leg. It stuck in the plaster cast with most of it sticking out of my jeans. “He really is Superboy!”

A couple of weeks later the doctor cut the cast off. The next week I was at school, bent over the drinking fountain when I felt a horrible sharp pain in the back of my knee. I straightened up, screaming. I looked down and sticking out of the back of my knee was less than half of a hatpin. There were three kindergartners standing there and one of them looked at me with a disgusted scowl and said, “You’re not Superboy!”

It’s a lesson I’ve re-learned several times in my life and has become a paradigm for the cost of getting seduced by our own pretenses.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

Through translating the two basic questions of almost all religions into ordinary language an average 18-year-old can understand, spelling out the “currency” in which life should be measured:

a. “Who, at my best, am I?”

b. “How should I live, so that when I look back I can be glad I lived that way?”

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Well, it’s the most interesting story to me for its impact on my life.

I was 19, looking for another class for the first semester of my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, and a friend suggested a New Testament class she had taken. I wasn’t terribly interested in religion, but she said the class was taught by a Jesuit who was very good.

He certainly was! Very bright, and he taught the stories of the Bible not as history, but mostly as symbols and metaphors. I had never heard of this approach before and loved it. But a fundamentalist Baptist kid sitting next to me sure didn’t. Finally, he just exploded, yelling that the Jesuit was talking about “Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, and everything in the Holy Bible is literally true!” The Jesuit walked up to the kid’s desk, leaned over a little, and said, “You do know these are myths, don’t you?” The rest of the semester was great, even without that kid.

As a Jesuit priest, he wasn’t trashing religion. He was saying that we have a responsibility to grow beyond simple literalism and understand the deeper insights and moral challenges of religion because honest religion is serious, not silly. Within six months I had written to a friend that I was sure I’d become a professor of religion. Instead, I became a soldier, officer, the Vietnam Entertainment Officer, a combat photographer and press officer, award-winning photographer, carpenter, serious graduate student — and finally, 25 years after that Jesuit’s class, a liberal minister and now author. But the seriousness about a grown-up symbolic and metaphorical interpretation of all religious stories, as well as the deep command to take ourselves seriously — it all began with the story of a great Jesuit teacher awakening my soul when I was a 19-year-old college sophomore.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

It was an absolutely horrible moment. Jack had done his ministerial internship under me for a year nearly 20 years earlier. He and his partner were published authors, and we had kept in touch, at least every couple of years. One Monday morning I got an email from Jack: short, scary and heart-stopping. It said that his partner’s daughter and her husband had been murdered that morning. An arsonist had burned down the 4-unit apartment building where they lived, after first dousing both exit doors with gasoline so that no one could escape. The two families had asked Jack to create a memorial service for the dead couple, but he said he just felt paralyzed and asked if I could suggest ideas for how to do this. I thought about it that day, and the next morning emailed him some ideas for Opening Words, a Prayer, a Eulogy, and Closing Words. That afternoon he wrote back, thanking me, and said he’d like to talk with me, so we set up a phone call for Wednesday morning.

It was nice to catch up, though the circumstances were horrible. He told me about the books he and his partner were getting published, and asked if I was writing — Jack had an M.A. in drama from Yale, and had always encouraged that. I said that friends had always told me I’m made of stories and should write them down. I had started writing them down many months ago. Jack asked if I could email them to him, said he’d love to read and perhaps critique them. I emailed more than 200 pages of stories to him that afternoon.

The next morning, Thursday, Jack emailed me saying he had read them all (how do people read that fast?) and had sent them to his publisher or agent in London. Friday the London agent emailed me, saying I needed to finish them, and he wanted to help me get them published (they became the first edition of this book in 2020).

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Well, in a year as a hospital chaplain and 23 years as a minister, I hope and believe there were many, though I’ve not tried to “keep score” in this way.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

a. Teach and embody moral courage — to confront your group when needed, rather than just blindly following powerful but bad leaders like herd animals.

b. Invite heresy in all fields, as a corrective to the innate tendency to act like herd animals that come from being a Social Species.

c. Translate the insights of religion out of myths and into ordinary language. We don’t need to believe anyone’s supernaturalism — “You do know these are myths, don’t you?” — but we desperately need to take ourselves and our world more seriously.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

The desire and ability and commitment to help ground people in healthy and constructive principles and help them find their moral courage to act on them, to offer a healthy gift to the world.

From ancient times I think of people like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, etc. For modern examples of leaders, I think of FDR, MLK, JFK and LBJ at their best. And Candace Owens is an example of a brilliant and brave young woman.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

a. Trust your deep certainties but be open to having them challenged.

b. People who disagree with you are as smart, as decent and as certain as you are. So where is the basis of the authority you claim?

c. Without moral courage you will just become one of the ignorant masses.

d. Always try to be a positive presence in your world, rather than an indifferent or negative one. (“Pay it forward”)

e. Always remember that the two most important questions in life are “Who, at my best, am I?” and “How should I live, so that when I look back I can be glad I lived that way?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are two:

a. Don’t worry about what people think. Most of them don’t.

b. Virtually every advance in every field has been made first by a heretic. Without our heretics, we would still believe what Neanderthals believed 10,000 years ago.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

Oh, maybe Candace Owens

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I don’t have a website and don’t do blogs. So I just have the books (a new one will be out in early 2022), and these interviews.

davidsonloehr@gmail.com

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


Social Impact Authors: How & Why Davidson Loehr Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.