The Chutzpah of a Philosophical Spirit

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Envision Socrates on a Hobie Cat, and you may be ready to follow Phillip Berman, 29, on the circuitous spiritual quest that led to the publication last November of his hard-cover book "The Courage of Conviction" (Dodd, Mead & Co.).

A collection of essays from 32 "of today's most prominent men and women," Berman's book takes the reader through a hodgepodge of minds, from the Dalai Lama's to Hugh Downs'; from Lech Walesa's to Irving Wallace's. Moving alphabetically from the convictions of Jane Alexander to those of Michael York, one trudges through pretentiousness and soars along on clear passages of profundity. At the end of the journey, the reader at least may have sampled a fair range of the beliefs held by the mainstream of intelligent people midway through the 1980s.

To get to the point where those views were printed, Berman took an unlikely journey that led from the waves of Newport Beach to Harvard Divinty School and now continues as he drives across the country trying to persuade people to read the essays he persuaded his contributors to write.

A good place to begin that travelogue might be the Harbor Reform Temple in Newport Beach, where Berman was bar mitzvahed. Following that important rite of passage, Berman's father reportedly told his 13-year-old son: 'Now you are bar mitzvahed and now you are a man, and if you don't want to go back to the synagogue you don't have to."

"And I didn't," recalled Berman, who recently passed back through Orange County on his self-designed and largely self-financed book tour. Instead, the adolescent took the money he had collected at his bar mitzvah and bought a 14-foot Hobie Cat.

"I wouldn't say I was a happy-go-lucky kid, 'cause apparently I've always been inordinately aggressive and driven," Berman said. But for the next few years, Berman's drive focused on sailing his catamaran and shredding Orange County waves.

Berman's life began to change, however, in his senior year at Corona del Mar High School, when his father, a Santa Ana attorney, died after a six-month battle with cancer.

"I didn't know how to deal with it at the time, I really didn't," Berman said. So rather than deal with it, "I just surfed and sailed constantly."

While still in high school Berman had co-authored a book on Hobie Cat racing that became a best seller in its market niche, he said. After graduating, he talked Hobie Cat Co. into letting him promote the book. With a Hobie Cat on top of a canary-yellow Dodge van, he took off across the country to race and lecture in what had seemed like a California jock's dream come true.

'Lonely and Angry'

But looking back, Berman recalls that he was "lonely and angry and confused"--and that his inner state was reflected in his actions. He gained a reputation for "obnoxiousness" on the sailing circuit, he conceded. "I would scream and yell on the race course and be a pretty unfriendly guy."

Following that tour, Berman wound up in the Virgin Islands. It was there, he said, that he began to understand that "existence is ephemeral."

"I realized that that whole year, what I'd been doing was trying to shrug off the responsibility I had to answer the question, 'How should I live my life?,' " he said.

In a turn of events worthy of a scene in a Woody Allen movie, Berman, who was by then working as a busboy at a fancy French restaurant, met a chef who had studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. Amid the crepe and souffle pans, the chef told Berman, "Young man, you are interested in the meaning of life, and the only way you'll satisfy that interest is to study philosophy," Berman said.

So Berman returned to Orange County and enrolled at Orange Coast College. The first course he took was Prof. Alfred Painter's Philosophy 100.

Impressed With Professor

One day Berman invited his instructor to go sailing. "As we say in sailing terms, it was blowing like snot," Berman recalled. But without hesitation, Painter dangled from a trapeze harness as the Hobie Cat skimmed across the bay on one pontoon. Berman was impressed. "It was Dr. Painter who made me think, 'Hey, this philosophy is a pretty nice thing; I'd like to be like that. . . ," Berman said. "He really inspired me."

In "The Courage of Conviction," several contributors describe moments of sudden inspiration and understanding. Jane Goodall, the noted primate expert experienced such an epiphany while gazing at a stained-glass window as the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral played Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Psychiatrist Robert Coles' life changed during the early days of the civil rights movement when he witnessed a vicious police assault and "the sight of a lone dark girl of 6 walking with her head high past grown men and women who cursed her and screamed threats at her. . . ."

Berman's epiphany came while he was jogging along the beach in Corona del Mar.

The young seeker had transferred to UC Irvine, where he was studying philosophy. However, "for whatever reason, at that time I was tremendously depressed," he recalled. "So I started running as part of a regimen to get myself mentally and physically healthy."

Message From Dust Devil

One day as he was jogging, he saw a dust devil whirling along the sand like a small tornado. "I didn't see God. Jesus didn't come and talk to me. The Buddha didn't light on my shoulder," he explained. " . . But in a very strange way, I felt that that dust devil was speaking to me. I felt it was saying: 'Hello, look at me; I'm alive and you're alive and we're all here.' All the problems I'd been grappling with in philosophy class--freedom, determinism--all just seemed to melt away because I had experienced, quite clearly in retrospect, what Abraham Maslow called a peak experience. . . ."

At that moment Berman realized that he was more interested in religion than philosophy, he said. So he transferred to UC Santa Barbara and studied comparative religion while continuing to sail and write sailing books.

The year Berman graduated, two seemingly incongruous things happened: He went to South Africa where he won the world Hobie Cat championships in the 14-foot class, and he entered Harvard Divinity School.

When he graduated from Harvard he "remained interested in the questions: 'Who am I, why am I here, and what is the significance of my life,' " Berman said. But he also realized that he didn't want to be a rabbi--or a priest or a minister or a mullah.

He thought about entering law school as an avenue to a political career but dismissed legal studies as "too restrictive." He may still run for office, though, "I think I have the kind of mettle to put up with politics," he said.

Collection by Murrow

In 1982, however, while browsing through a swap meet in Santa Barbara, where he now lives, Berman came across veteran journalist Edward R. Murrow's "This I Believe," a collection of philosophical essays by prominent people. Berman said he was fascinated and quickly set out to compile a similar collection in which prominent people would explain not only what they believe but also how they put those beliefs into action.

He immediately ran into obstacles. As one publisher he contacted explained, "Edward R. Murrow's book was a success because Edward R. Murrow was Edward R. Murrow."

But Berman again put his inner drive into high gear. He created an organization called the Center for the Study of Contemporary Belief, and over the course of three years, he hounded about 1,500 people with letters asking them to contribute essays (offering $400 for each), he said. When someone declined, he wrote back to them. When they declined again, he wrote back again, becoming increasingly informal with each letter.

In most cases the epistolary pleading never paid off--although any autograph collector would covet Berman's binder full of rejection letters from such notable figures as Samuel Beckett, Jimmy Carter and Joan Didion.

Still when his publication deadline arrived, Berman had a collection of essays, most of which had been rewritten at least once following the neophyte editor's suggestions (he rejected another "15 or 20" pieces that weren't good enough and feels that at least three of those essays that did appear aren't really up to par, he said).

The result of his persistence is a wide-ranging mosaic of ideas that touches on the concerns of contemporary life, from the sacred to the profane--God, family, sexuality, freedom, education, politics, technology, nuclear arms.

Ideas Resonate

Certain ideas resonate through the book as similar thoughts are expressed in distinctive ways by dissimilar people. For example, author Rita Mae Brown's "People are like tea bags, you never know how strong they'll be until they're in hot water," becomes "When an overheated vessel is plunged into cold water, it will crack or be tempered," in the words of socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson.

Sometimes the viewpoints almost seem to evolve from essay to essay. For instance, addressing the questions of God, free will and determinism, Polish Union leader Lech Walesa flatly states, "I believe that I am here to execute the verdicts of Providence." Baby doctor Benjamin Spock writes, "It doesn't seem plausible to me that there is the kind of God who watches over human affairs, listens to prayers, and tries to guide people to follow his precepts. . . ." And socio-biologist Wilson, marveling at the wonder of biology while denying the existence of an immaterial god, argues that "the need today . . . is to understand the material origin of the religious drive and direct it back to humanity without losing its ability to give power and joy to the human mind."

Berman's stated goal in putting together the book was to nurture tolerance, and appropriately the work is rife with contradictory viewpoints. For example, Sidney Hook, of the Hoover Institution, the conservative political think tank, writes: "The fear that civilization will be destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, which is fed by horror stories in all the media, seems to me to be an expression of paranoia that weakens the will to resist aggressive and expanding totalitarian systems."

Green Party Co-Founder

Fifteen pages later, Petra Kelly, co-founder of the environmentalist Green Party in West Germany argues: "The SS-20s, the Pershing 2s, the Tridents and the 'star wars' weapons, they do not begin in factories; they begin in our minds because we have been conditioned to think each other to death."

But if the book has one message, it is in the paradox, discussed by several contributors, that rather than tearing the world apart, this endless conflict of beliefs somehow binds things together. As author Norman Cousins writes: "Human unity is the fulfillment of diversity. It is the harmony of opposites. It is a many-stranded texture with color and depth."

"The Courage of Conviction" has sold a respectable 12,000 hard-cover copies so far, according to a representative of Berman's nonprofit center, which will use revenues from the book to establish a scholarship fund and publish more books. But those figures don't satisfy Berman, who is currently driving around the country, pestering editors at newspapers and television stations in hopes of bringing more attention to the ideas he gathered. Contacted at his mother's home in Sedona, Ariz., after a hectic day in pursuit of the Holy Grail of greater sales, Berman admitted that despite all he's learned about life, pure happiness remains elusive.

'I'm Taking a Lot of Rejection'

"I don't want to sound like a martyr, but it would be a lot easier for me to just sit home in Santa Barbara," Berman said. "I'm taking a lot of rejection, and oftentimes I'm angered by the fact that I have to work so hard to do what could be done with one five-minute appearance on 'Good Morning America' or the 'Larry King Show.' "

Berman said he despairs for American cultural values and for a country that would rather watch "Dallas" and "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" than read about more serious matters.

"And I feel under-appreciated by my peers" he continued, explaining that his generation seems to care more about whether he has "a big car and a gold card" than that "I persevered in my beliefs, which I hammered out on the anvil of experience."

In the end, though, Berman finds happiness in believing in what he is doing, he said. "I guess in everything there's a sort of cost-benefit analysis. . . . Whatever I may lose financially, I'll more than triple or double my investment spiritually, emotionally and intellectually by doing what I know is right." And, at the same time, he is also making important media contacts that will help with later projects, such as the oral history of American beliefs he's currently compiling, he said.

Berman worries, though, that his drive for publicity might be misunderstood. "I really want to be clear about this," he said. "I'm not interested in becoming famous, but I do want people to read the book, and share the wonderful experience of entering into these minds."

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