The Modern Moral Compass

While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
– John Adams, Address to the Officers of the Massachusetts Militia

When John Adams gave this speech to the officers of the Massachusetts militia, the French revolution had already produced the “reign of terror” and victimized the French people for almost nine years.  The atheistic fraternal principles upon which the revolution was based were a point of concern for then President Adams, and he had predicted its ultimate failure.  In his view, a functioning democracy required a people bound by religiously founded principles and guided by an undeviating moral compass.   I believe he understood that any government “by the people” would ultimately unravel if “the people” were unworthy of it.  I doubt he could have foreseen our day, but I also doubt he would be surprised at what we have done to our government given the decrepit moral condition of  society.

Some of the incessant hyperbolic and hyperventilating news coverage  has given me pause to ponder the general state of our nation.  Recently, a deranged bigot shot up a historically black church and ruthlessly murdered nine people attending a prayer meeting.  As a result, we are supposed to believe this horrible action is an inevitable and exclusive outcome of historic anti-black racism and that banning flags, erasing history, and publicly castigating anyone who happens to disagree is the cure.  We must spend hours and hours discussing at length the white-man’s shame and find every creepy looking picture of the perpetrator ever taken so it can be plastered on everyone’s screens in an effort to demonize him.  Nobody seems interested in dealing with the fact that the mentally ill have always been with us, and that violence of this sort is rare, not new, and only preventable by deeply infringing on multiple fundamental liberties.  As long as we are unwilling to arbitrarily and forcibly institutionalize anyone who shows signs of mental instability (never mind the very contentious discussion about what constitutes instability and who gets to decide),  we must accept the risk that these types of events represent.   Yet we don’t talk about the real issues, and we are unwilling to cope with the inevitability of risk.

With similar breathlessness, media outlets spread hate, hysteria, distrust, discontent, and sometimes outright disinformation when someone dies at the hands of law enforcement if the incident happens to support the narrative of powerful people.  Meanwhile, we are unwilling to discuss the realities and risks that contribute to the distrust and dangerous tension that exists between police and their constituents.  We aren’t allowed to ask why it is that police have shifted away from “community” policing, are armed better than most third-world armies, and escalate to lethal force when they feel threatened.  We cannot question the conditions and undercurrents of society that have engendered a feeling of mutual dislike between police and the public they serve.  We certainly can’t have an open and honest debate about why a police officer might feel more likely to be threatened by a young black male than any other demographic due to the foregone conclusion that this stems from Jim-Crow era racism.   Any attempt to deviate from this party line is instantly dismissed and often results in a reprimand, marginalization, and/or mandatory white privilege training.  Informed, frank, and open-minded discussion or debate has been completely replaced by volleys of shouting and thirty-second slogans hurled from one side of the debate to the other.

While talking heads with little real interest other than self-aggrandizement foment unrest and further violence, another string of victims (mostly minorities) and perpetrators (also mostly minorities) is constantly being  produced without substantial news coverage.  The mass outrage that should be appropriate given the large numbers of lives being destroyed by this politically inconvenient violence is silent or suppressed.  This violence is ignored, not because of racism, but because it doesn’t support the narrative.  Apparently it’s racist to want to talk about some of the most common perpetrators, victims and most importantly the causes of violence against and by minorities.  Even more fundamentally than that, we as a people don’t seem interested in the root causes of violence writ-large – the combination of policy, history, economics, collusion, greed, real racism or other forms of prejudice,  and cultural corruption that is corroding the very foundations of our society.

A look at the “privileged” classes doesn’t bring much more hope.  My personal experience is ripe with young men of any race with little ambition, useless education, and a deep-rooted sense of entitlement.  Rather than put on a pair of over-alls and pick up a shovel or crawl under a car, they squeeze themselves into clothing designed to make women look stupid and make men look like effeminate she-males.  They spend their energy and time lost in virtual worlds incapable of providing any real rewards, and cringe at the thought of responsibility that comes with being a contributing adult member of society.  Sex for them is simply a pass-time that provides selfish pleasures most often experienced through pornography, and real intimacy is forfeit to on-line or casual relationships.   Marriage and family are arrangements of convenience, assuming they happen to find it convenient long enough to enter into that all-to-temporary social and tax-advantaged arrangement.  Children, when even in the picture, are often an afterthought, selfish desire, accident, or inconvenient obligation.  I see a generation largely adrift and sitting precariously under the sword of Damocles while they stoke a fire hot enough to singe the string that keeps it suspended.

As if watching an entire generation implode weren’t bad enough, we are asked and expected as a society to celebrate when a fading celebrity who is uncomfortable with the body God gave him undergoes extensive surgery to look like something he is not.  What’s more, an apparently large and highly visible swath of society does celebrate.  Pictures of this “transformation” are plastered all over public spaces and (s)he is heralded for inherent “bravery” while collecting large paychecks for sharing the journey with an eagerly voyeuristic public.  We collectively seem to have accepted the narrative that gender is not a biological trait, but that it also must not be viewed as a choice – the vast majority oblivious to the internal inconsistency of this view.  Parents and medical professionals now consider and initiate hormone therapy to delay or disrupt normal sexual development so the child can “decide” if it wants to be female or male.

We celebrate publicly when the Supreme Court overturns millennia of cultural wisdom and tradition to redefine the fundamental unit of society.  The very fact that we feel a need for the state to sanction and subsidize relationships that are incapable of propagating society doesn’t seem odd.  Instead, those who “cling” to traditional beliefs are castigated as “intolerant” and bigoted as opposed to the “enlightened” members of society who seem quite intolerant of dissenting opinions on the subject.

These examples are simply a small taste of the variety of stories, anecdotes, and current events that call into question the long-term viability of our culture as it currently stands.  We are in a time and place where we are being taught and seem to believe that family relationships are optional and are for the fulfillment of individual “needs,” that children are a burden, that mothers who raise their own children instead of “contributing to society” by working outside the home are selfish, that self worth comes from external sources, that exercising judgment is the same as being judgmental, that  terminating a viable pregnancy (killing an unborn child to use politically incorrect speech) is a desirable alternative to the inconvenience and responsibility of an unplanned pregnancy, that success and failure are the product and result of other people’s influence on our lives, that there is no primal role for personal responsibility and individual effort, that rapid and unrestrained personal gratification is the height of achievement, that life has little value, that work is an inconvenient necessity rather than a blessing, that humans are evil beings who are destroying the global environment, and that right and wrong are flexible concepts.   If they believe in God, many have fashioned a God in their own mind who is the deified equivalent of a parent who refuses to tell their children no, introduces them to the joys of being high on methamphetamine, and takes their son to see a prostitute for his sixteenth birthday.

Our moral compass seems to have been degaussed, or worse yet, had its polarity reversed.  The terms John Adams used to describe a dysfunctional and dangerous society “which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence,”
are fully applicable today.  We, as a society that was originally based on classical liberal ideals and traditions cannot enjoy the benefits of a government built around those ideals if we abandon the very foundation on which that government was built.  We will only get the government we deserve, and at present we don’t deserve much that is virtuous or praiseworthy.

Because of our vanity and greed we have put ourselves in a position where we no longer have the right to complain about the onerous burdens placed on us by the societal masters.  We have proven incapable of governing ourselves, and as such should not be surprised when a subset of ambitious and corrupt individuals take that task on themselves.  Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, few seem to see through the tissue-paper thin veneer of self governance and liberty to understand the true nature of the ties that bind us.  Our ignorance, insolence, and self-absorption have allowed avaricious men to gradually wrap thin flaxen cords around us for so long that we are now bound fast and subject to their whims and pleasures without realizing how it happened.  In some cases we fail completely to understand that we are even bound.

Our government, once at least outwardly based on the concepts of individual liberty and god-given rights, is gone.  It has become a nanny-state oligarchy where “citizens” are artfully manipulated and exploited by the powerful to extract wealth and power while a few elite (and not necessarily those who sit formally in judgment) decide which “rights” are fundamental and which are inconvenient.

Benjamin Franklin’s assessment of the outcome of the constitutional convention seems prescient when viewed through the lens of current events.  When asked “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Dr. Franklin reportedly replied “A republic if you can keep it.”    It doesn’t appear we have been able to keep it.
There does seem to be one silver lining to this cloudy picture though.  Darwin at his best described adaptation of species through essentially a die-off of the unfit and preferential (or selective) breeding reinforcing positive genetic characteristics.  Perhaps since the loafers and deadbeats don’t seem to be interested in peopling the earth, maybe they’ll breed themselves out of relevancy and a few more sane, rational, independent, and thoughtful people will fill the void with children brought up outside the nonsense of the main-stream.  Who knows, maybe in a generation or two they’ll be able to look back on our time with the same disdain with which we ponder the inquisition or other shameful periods in history.

Happy Father’s Day

For Father’s day this year, Liz interviewed Michael and provided me a run-down of the answers he provided.  You never know what you’re going to get when you ask a four-year-old questions, and in this case, the result can be quite funny.  The questions and his answers are provided below for your reading pleasure:

  1. How old is Dad?  20
  2. What is Dad’s favorite color?  Orange
  3. What is Dad’s favorite outfit to wear?  Shirts
  4. What is Dad’s favorite movie?  Jason Bourne
  5. Where was Dad born?  He was with Jesus before he was born
  6. Dad’s favorite sport is:  Soccer
  7. Dad doesn’t like: Coyotes
  8. Dad’s favorite food:  Egg scramble
  9. Dad’s favorite dessert:  Pumpkin pie
  10. Dad knows how to: Feed the chickens and check for eggs
  11. Dad’s favorite vacation spot: HEB (a local grocery store)
  12. Dad’s favorite animal: chickens
  13. Dad’s favorite restaurant: Dairy Queen
  14. My dad’s job is: Shoots his gun
  15. Dad weighs ___1___ lb
  16. Dad likes to: Goof around
  17. One day Dad will: Play with toys
  18. I love Dad because: he plays with toys with me

How accurate these answers are is a question you’ll have to resolve in your own minds.  It’s so hard for me to pick favorites, even on simple things like desserts.

A beautiful young lady

Sydney is off to youth conference for the weekend.  Of course, that means she had to get all dolled up for the fireside and dance that kicks the weekend off.  I’m so proud I have to share a picture of her dressed to kill.  Look out teenage boys, she’s dangerous but still under-age.  Check back in just over a year and you can get in line to compete for a first date.IMG_8419-1

Quote of the Day

While scanning a news site I ran across an article talking about a collection of letters Albert Einstein had written.   One of the topics reportedly addressed in the letters frequently was Einstein’s thoughts on God.  One section quoted struck me:

I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.
-Albert Einstein

While I don’t agree with Einsteins thoughts on the childishness of believing in a personal God (contained in a section of the quote I omitted here), I think his reasoning is something the rest of the world could use more of.  We as a society have somehow come to the extraordinarily arrogant conclusion that we have a near complete understanding of how things really are.  We believe that because we can apply logic, reason, and the scientific method to predict and observe various phenomenon we know how things actually work.   Furthermore, we seem to believe that because we think we understand how things are, we can control them as well.

If Albert Einstein suffered from intellectual frailty, we all must admit to the same faults.  I believe a big dose of humility and introspection about the frailty and fallibility of men and our incomplete ability to even comprehend simple things would go a long way towards solving some of the uglier societal problems facing us now.

Failure – The Forcing Function

‘Some conjurers say that number three is the magic number, and some say number seven. It’s neither, my friend, neither. It’s number one…  Only to show you my meaning clearly,’ said the Jew, raising his eyebrows. ‘To [secure your own prosperity], you depend upon me. To keep my little business all snug, I depend upon you. The first is your number one, the second my number one. The more you value your number one, the more careful you must be of mine; so we come at last to what I told you at first—that a regard for number one holds us all together, and must do so, unless we would all go to pieces in company.’
– Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

This passage from Oliver Twist has often wound its way through my thoughts over the years since I first encountered it, and it has grown to have substantial meaning for me.  While the complete and original context the message was one of mutual dependence based on shared knowledge of misdeeds and certain doom if caught, I have come to believe the general principle Fagin was attempting to describe is more universally applicable.  If you truly understand the nature of your priorities it becomes clear that you cannot simply focus on the “number one” without jeopardizing other priorities that are critical to sustain “number one.”  In fact, the more you understand the nature of the truly important things in your life, the more inseparable they become.  The concept that there are discrete and independent “number one” priorities in life seems to me a fundamental fallacy of modern creation that has led to untold frustration, failure, and heartache.

This belief of mine, however well founded, is sure to exclude me from the club of motivational speakers, guidance counselors, and self-help authors who hawk a brand of snake-oil based on the promise that simply putting “first things first” will ensure success and happiness.  They promise eagerly gaping audiences (who incidentally have heard the message before) that if they only take an inventory of their lives and selves and articulate what they find in a rank-ordered list of priorities the path forward will become clear and achievable without giving up things that are substantially important.   The truth, as I see it, is far too complex to simplify into a bumper-sticker reduction of much more intricate concepts and realities.

Take for example a perhaps typical top five breakdown that any superficial inventory may produce:

1. God
2. Family
3. Physical and Financial Security
4. Serving Others
5. Professional Obligations

I challenge anyone with even a superficial understanding of the true nature of any of these five items to describe to me how it is that any one, two, three, or even four of these priorities can be satisfied at the expense of the others.  For example, families were instituted by God for the benefit of man as part of His work and glory.  Failure in the family equates to failing God in a very real way.  Attempting to divorce serving God from meeting family obligations is a guaranteed way to break both.  God cannot be pleased with us unless we are striving with our fullest strength to meet our family obligations, and we won’t meet our family obligations in real terms unless we serve and seek to please God with similar intensity.

Perhaps tying the top two priorities together is a poor example since they are so intimately related at a fundamental level.  As an alternative, consider the final of the five indicated priorities – Professional Obligations.    We have a duty to produce a fair amount of work for the wages we receive.  To do otherwise is a rotten mixture of dishonesty (breaking faith with the contract employment represents) and theft, pure and simple.  I know of no main-stream faith tradition where dishonesty and theft are acceptable to God, and consequently failing in professional obligations is failing God.  I cannot satisfy “number one” unless I satisfy number five.   Furthermore, I cannot fulfill my family responsibilities without the work and associated income tied to my professional obligations.  Number two depends on number five.  And, to bring us full circle, I won’t be capable of fully meeting my professional obligations if my family or faith are in crisis.  Five depends on one and two.  Once enlightened to this mode of analysis, it becomes easy to show that none of these five priorities can possibly be satisfied in isolation.  However, because I don’t feel like spelling it out at the moment, I’ll pull the same cop-out authors of my old math textbooks would use… “the proof is left to the reader as an exercise.”

I suppose the counter argument would be along the lines that by taking care of the high-priority items, such as the five listed above, you will have the clarity to eliminate “chaff,” ample time to accomplish all that is needful, and have time, resources, and energy to spend on the lower-priority things that are worth doing.   The funny thing about assertions of fact like this one is that it only takes one counter-example to disprove it.  Without going into detail and revealing information that either isn’t mine or not for public consumption, I state unequivocally that I have irrefutable counter-examples.  I assert that it is not only possible, but extremely frequent that any given subset of “number ones” intertwine to form a web that binds as impossibly tight as any chain that blacksmith ever forged.  Once bound by this web of entanglements, ones ability to manage schedule, priority, resources, and desires without failing in some aspect is debilitated just as surely and completely as the body of one who is incarcerated in a maximum security prison.

Reflecting on this reality, it is easy to become disheartened or depressed.  Every one of us are in a position where we simply can’t win; and failure, we are often told, is not a option.  Personal limitations and resulting shortcomings or failures are tied intimately with some of the most bitter memories and moments in my life.  Coming to terms with the inexorable reality that there is noting I can do to avoid some level of failure is not something I can simply accept as inevitable without substantial cognitive dissonance and internal anguish.   Unfortunately, I am periodically forced to do just that.  Cognitive dissonance and anguish are close friends of mine, as I have repeatedly been put in a position where I cannot meet the demands placed upon me, have attempted to muscle my way through while juggling a dozen or so flaming spears of responsibility, and have been burned or crushed when a miscalculation or external influence caused me to skip a beat.  The delicate balance and rhythms that had kept everything in motion don’t handle disruption well, which brings the side-show to an abrupt and spectacularly disappointing end as I try to rescue at least a few of the things I was juggling while gravity regains its foot-hold and pulls them to the floor with a crash.

Given the inevitability of failure, the next logical conclusion may be that we simply must accept failure for what it is and give up trying.  This, however, is a terrible fallacy.  Failure is a critical aspect of growth, and this life is a time for continual growth and learning.  We must accept failure as inevitable, but must not accept it as the standard for performance.  Failure is the feedback mechanism that stimulates growth and identifies weak spots that need strengthening or reinforcement.  Had we always been unwilling to fail (only do things we are good at), we would all still be helpless fleshy slugs nursing on our mothers teats, and I can’t imagine that as a desirable state of being much beyond the first few short months of life.

I remember being somewhat risk-averse as a kid, but also remember attempting things I was completely unprepared for only to fall flat on my face (sometimes literally as my mother can attest).  While the often painful feedback had consequences that were unpleasant and sometimes lasting, in the end it didn’t stop me from doing and getting better at many things.  Take for example learning to ride a bicycle… I don’t know of anyone who learned to ride a bike as a kid who didn’t crash and burn several times in the initial stages.  Even then, most of us still managed to crash along the way as we began pushing limits and exploring the edges of the envelope.  In my case, I have a very vivid memory of being thrilled to have finally gotten vertical and in motion on a neighbors bike (which incidentally didn’t have breaks and was in motion well before the era of bike helmets).  Unfortunately, I was incapable of balancing the demands of riding a bike at the time, lost focus, and crashed into the grille of the Avon Lady’s car.  It hurt in ways I won’t describe beyond telling you the cross-bar on the bike was taller than my legs could comfortably straddle.   In every respect, my initial foray into riding a bike was a spectacular failure.  Had I then the kind of timidity that comes with age, I doubt there would have been a second attempt without some form of coercion.  However, I had the fearlessness of youth and became quite adept at operating two-wheeled, self-propelled transportation in spite of several subsequent failures that included knocked out teeth, stitches, and other unpleasant consequences.  In fact, I came to love bikes and spent lots of time and miles pedaling through all kinds of urban and wild terrain including rather difficult and technical rides that should have given me pause.  The energy and hopefulness of youth was able to experience failure, learn from it, and move on without debilitating hesitation.

Maybe this is part of what Christ meant when he directed us to be like little children.  Children are willing to take risks and accept failure as part of the learning process.  When they encounter failure, they may cry, complain, whine, or otherwise flounder for a while, but in general they are willing to try again because they understand it is part of the price of learning.  Each and every one of us on this earth have great potential and fail to meet it to some degree because we aren’t willing to risk much.  We need to accept that we will fail, at least for a season or in some respect.  We may fail even at important things like whatever it is we label as “number one.”  However, in doing so we need to avoid throwing our arms in the air and giving up.  The key to failure is to acknowledge it, see if there is something we can change to avoid it in the future, accept it if we can’t, and “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again” as one of my wife’s favorite children’s songs advises.   Failure is a fact.  There is no way to avoid it, but there are ways to turn it to our benefit if we accept it for what it is: the the moderating force that balances risk and a forcing function for learning.

Sea World

Several years ago when we lived in Florida we would go to sea world pretty regularly.  I never really enjoyed the experience.  Between the three dollar bottles of water, the whiny kids who wouldn’t or couldn’t go on any of the fun rides, the expensive crappy food, and the outrageous parking I usually walked away feeling financially violated and irritated.

The last time we did anything of that sort was almost five years ago when we were in Florida. We’ve been in San Antonio for almost three years now, have had the option to go back to Sea World on complimentary passes for the whole time, and only just now managed to make time to go.  Recently, I went with my heels dug in and being dragged the whole way.  Michael was not going to let me forget the promise we had made some time ago that we would come here “later.”  When my sister and her family came to visit, making the pilgrimage to see Shamu while here, “later” became a more imminent requirement.  I could no longer get away with telling him we would come later, I had to be more specific.

Unfortunately, the dates we initially selected to go had all been rained (or more accurately flooded) out.  When Monday came and the forecast looked clear I was informed that I should put in leave and do the paperwork for the complimentary tickets for Tuesday.    While I was arranging tickets I did the unthinkable and ordered the all you can eat meal plan (at a substantial discount) and pre-paid parking. This unusual decision has turned out to be a blessing.  One of the things that tend to bother me the most when we do things like this is the almost endless string of over priced drinks, snacks, and bad food that end up as a necessity and trend towards doubling the cost of the ordeal.

While I grumbled at the cost of my “free” tickets when I ordered them yesterday, I haven’t had to pull more than fifteen dollars out off my wallet all day, and the pain of yesterday was over before we left the house.  I was able to buy four dollar bottles of water and Diet Coke with abandon all day, didn’t feel like force-feeding Michael when he declined to eat the food he ordered for lunch, and somehow didn’t feel quite as cheated when the ten dollar plate of something that was supposed to be Chinese beef and broccoli turned out to be almost inedible.  In reality I probably only saved a relatively small amount, but I felt better about it all day, and as a result I didn’t take it out on Liz or the kids.

Along the way, the kids all had a great time.  Sydney and Isaac both conquered their hesitations (I won’t publicly call it fear) to ride two of the most intimidating roller-coasters in San Antonio.  Michael was delighted by the dolphin show and slapstick clown humor that was part of the pre-show act as well as demonstrating a love for the wilder of the kid-friendly rides like the Shamu Express and distaste for the calmer ones like the ferris wheel.  Liz seemed to enjoy leading Michael through exploring the penguin house and other events while I shepherded the bigger kids through rides Liz didn’t feel like experiencing.  All in all, the day was a success.   And the best part of it all…  I don’t have to go back for another five years or so!

Uninspired

I sat down today to write, knowing that doing so generally helps me focus my thoughts or at least pick through the ashes of them and find some remainder to share.  After reflecting for a few minutes, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have nothing that could be viewed as interesting, productive or entertaining.  In fact, the things beating a path through my mind at the moment and marinating in the pickling brine that is there are probably best left unvoiced.  While I might find it theraputic to expose some of those sour  thoughts and feelings, the odds of them being used against me and the attendant consequences far outweigh any potential payoff.  This, of course, means posterity and the general public must be content to only wonder.