Category Archives: Essays

My thoughts on social, political, or historical issues, or any other topic on which I feel the need to pontificate.

Multi-polar

When in Rome, do as the Romans
– St. Ambrose

I was pondering some on the nature of the “quote” above and decided to look up it’s history.  Much to my surprise, it is attributed St. Ambrose, a devout Christian.  Given the way this sentiment is used in modern society, I was thunderstruck at the idea it had originated from one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the early Church.  On the surface, it would appear that St. Ambrose is advocating for a form of moral relativism and giving license to abandon morals and standards in order to “fit in.”  However, after reflecting some and looking for the context around which the thought was based, I understand how it could be applied to Christian morals and have found a modicum of comfort in it.

It was something in the nature of my professional, interpersonal, and private relationships that initially got me pondering on this topic.  You see… it seems to me I have something of a split personality.  When at work, the personality and behaviors I utilize are markedly different from those I use with my family or social acquaintances.  The public face of Dad when he gets home from work looks very different from that of the LtCol who just left work.  Both of these faces look different from the face of the Priesthood leader, and all of the faces combined look different from the face that lies hidden in the recesses of myself.

I have, of necessity, developed something of a segmented personality and persona that has dropped deep roots into the crevices of my brain.  What I must be to function in the varied environments I live and work in changes with the surrounding environment to some degree, and the long years of practiced mental segregation have resulted in rather solid dividing lines between the various contexts.  Because of the nature of my work, much of what I say or do at there must stay there.  Aside from requirements to protect certain information from disclosure, the techniques and traits used to get “it” done are wholly inappropriate and inadequate for social or familial situations.  As a result, I have a “work brain” and “work personality” that activates almost automatically when I walk through the doors to my office.  Similarly, I have a “home brain” and “home personality” that kick into gear when I am around family, and a “social brain” and “social personality” I can drag out of hiding when I need to be sociable at a party or other “fun” gathering.

The lnikages between these various personalities have tended to get weaker and weaker as I get more and more exercised at using them for their intended purposes.  In fact, one complication of this kind of compartmented reasoning and reacting is that I tend to forget what I was doing and what is required of me almost instantly when I switch from one context to another.  When I am at work home is not in my thoughts much, and events, anniversaries, requirements, shopping lists, or any other home-related things I should be remembering are archived in the “home” section of myself and lie dormant until I leave work and shift gears.  The process works both ways.  As a result, I am a rather forgetful person on the whole.

This split-personality characteristic has always bothered me.  It has often made me feel like a fraud to some degree, and caused me to attempt to consolidate the public faces of myself from time to time.  Each time I’ve made the attempt it has been aborted after exhaustion kicked in or consequences stemming from misapplied techniques became uncomfortable.  As a result, I’ve resigned myself to the unhappy reality that having a context-sensitive personality is an unfortunate but necessary requirement for me.  While I strive to ground all of my behaviors on a common foundation, the aspects of me that different people are exposed to look entirely different depending on where and when the interactions occur.

Given that there are several different public versions of “me,” none of which fully reflect the totality of me, that they have evolved to satisfy the requirements of my environment, and that they may seem inconsistent with each other, it’s no wonder that I have found grappling with this reality to be a little uncomfortable.  This is where the context around St Ambrose’s message becomes important.  He was addressing the Church about differences in non-doctrinal liturgical practices between geographic regions, not about adopting amoral or immoral practices simply because they were common in the local area.  I believe his message was that in cases where you aren’t compromising your integrity, honor, or moral standards it is okay to adopt the custom of your environment to smooth the way.

I still doubt it is ideal, and can’t completely shake the thought that I ought to be “who I am” no matter where I am or what I am doing.  However, as the distinct and mutually incompatible segments of my personality have been developed they have become a part of “me” to the extent that if given the opportunity to simply adopt one or a combination of multiple of them, I’m not sure which I would choose.  Am I the cynical, hard-nosed, over-confident, business-oriented professional?  Am I the quiet reserved and awkward geek?  Am I the academic? Am I the socialite with a wide network of friends?  Am I the hillbilly redneck who would rather spend time under the hood of a car or on a tractor than anywhere else?  Am I the artist and poet?  … The answers to each of these questions, unfortunately, is “Yes,” and I am sure there are more caricatures  should I dare to plumb the depths of myself.  I don’t think I am capable of dropping any of them (except maybe the business professional) without damaging a part of me that has become important in some form or fashion.

So, while I don’t necessarily care for my current state of mind (or personality, or being, or whatever…), I guess I have come to terms with the fact that it is who I am, and that it will be a part of me for the foreseeable future.

In the Wind

Now this was a great trial to those that did stand fast in the faith; nevertheless, they were steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments of God, and they bore with patience the persecution which was heaped upon them.
– Alma 1:25

About twenty years ago I spent several weekends driving chase truck for my neighbor who owned and operated a hot air balloon.  The deal was that if I drove long enough he would take me up on a ride.  My friend Sean and I decided a balloon ride would make an awesome homecoming group date and both of us signed up.   After the prescribed number of weekends, we both got dates and headed for the mountain town that was a favorite of local balloonists.  I remember my date being afraid of how it would feel to be that high in the air hanging in the wind while I was anticipating feeling the wind in my face.

At this point in my life I had been in small and large planes and on almost any form of wheeled transportation you can think of.  I was used to the feel of being buffeted by the wind and pavement. In fact, the feel of wind in my face was what drove me to spend as much time as I did on motorcycles.  Without pausing to consider it, I unconsciously expected the balloon ride to be something along the same lines.

s072206_0032Once we got airborne I quickly realized how wrong I was, and had I stopped to think about it, it would have been obvious the ride was going to be completely tranquil.  As soon as the balloon lifted off the ground the light breeze we had been enjoying stopped.  We had the feeling of being completely motionless, and without looking at the ground it was impossible to get a sense of the direction we were traveling or even appreciate the fact we were moving in the first place.

Once the balloon had slipped is moorings it was completely and totally at the mercy of the wind.  Wherever the wind blew, we went without really feeling like we were moving.  The only recourse the pilot had for changing course was to change altitude looking for a wind that was blowing in the right direction.  As the ride progressed we enjoyed the beautiful scenery and excellent company – drifting with the wind over the beautiful mountain valley.  However, all good things must come to an end, and we eventually began to run low on fuel.  As the pilot looked for a field to land in our options began to become somewhat limited due to the winds near the surface.  In the end, we had to settle for a manure covered cow pasture and hope the owners wouldn’t be too upset if we disturbed their cows (we did disturb them, but that’s a story for another day).

I hadn’t thought much about that day for years until I recently read an Ensign article as part of a Sunday school lesson that talked about our need for a spiritual anchor.  The teacher talked about how we will drift with the current if we don’t set an anchor.  I don’t have a lot of nautical experience, but it resonated with this experience in the balloon.  It seems to me that when we slip our moorings or cut away our spiritual anchors we are at the mercy of the undercurrents in society and whims of the morally bankrupt.  We begin to drift without any means to direct our path to a deliberate end-point.

As with the ride in the balloon, there are references we can use to detect our motion away from the moorings we left behind, but unlike  the balloon, the reference points require us to do a little more than casually look over the edge of the basket at the ground.   And worse yet, our ability to utilize the reference points weakens as we get further and further from our point of departure, requiring more effort to distinguish our movement the further we get from the truth.   The reference points for life may vary somewhat from person to person, but they always have common characteristics, the most important of which is that they must be grounded in the reality of eternal truths.

Without the benefit of being based on eternal principles, the winds, waves, storms, tremblings, and other abrasive realities erode any foundation built by man and result in an unstable and shifting reference.  As anyone versed in celestial navigation can tell you, without a fixed and immovable reference we can be sure of neither our course nor our current position.   Without a grasp on where you are and where you are headed, it doesn’t matter if you simply cease to fight against the currents and glide along effortlessly wherever they may take you, even if in the end it lands you in a pile of cow manure.

Just like the balloon ride, finding our way to a defined destination requires a few things.  First, it requires the realization that you have drifted away from your goal.  By identifying the fixed reference point(s) grounded in truth, we can see where we are and what direction we are going.   However, just identifying position and heading is inadequate.  Making it back to safe harbor requires changing direction which means deliberately leaving the currents that have carried us away in the first place.  We must seek out currents and fair winds that move us in the right direction.  For some of us, that may mean abandoning friends and behaviors that have contributed to the currents, for others it may mean letting go of grudges, pride, or other similar factors.  The bottom line is a requirement to remove ourselves from whatever influence(s) carried us away in the first place and put ourselves in a position where the influences will guide us back to a safe landing on solid ground.

Even leaving the current that carries us away isn’t enough.  Once we have left the moorings, it takes work to return.  In the case of the balloon it was a chase truck assigned to follow, recover, and return us to the start-point.  Unlike the balloon ride, we can’t rely on others to take us back to where we started without us putting in the effort.  It requires work on our part which can include repentance, forgiveness, study, prayer and reflection.  However, there is a support crew ready and waiting to help us along the way.  Family, friends, neighbors, priesthood leaders, teachers, and more are there to help and guide us along the way.  Even more importantly, the Savior has told us that his arm is always extended towards us to lift us up and carry us when needed if we will bend to His will.

Once we return to the safe harbor and solid moorings, we then must work to make sure we don’t get caught up in the air currents that will carry us away again.  First, we need to keep our eye continually on the fixed references of eternal truths so we can detect drift early on before it has carried us far afield.  Second, we should get instantly suspicious any time things feel calm.  When we were in the balloon basket prior to liftoff, we felt the wind blowing against us.  It only became particularly calm when we lifted off and began drifting.  If we don’t feel like we are going against the flow, we are being dragged by it, which is a position none of us should be comfortable in.

Through the looking glass

What’s wrong with DC?  How is it that the array of government and our duly elected representatives can be so disconnected from the reality of the majority of American lives?  After spending another several days in the national capitol region, I am reminded of at least one of the reasons.  DC is nothing like the rest of America.  It is a frighteningly distorted fairytale land, and I am convinced that anyone who spends much time there will eventually lose touch with the realities facing most of America.

The fact of the matter is that people are influenced by their environment in ways they are largely unconscious of.  I have lived in enough places and worked in enough different environments that I have seen the impact local culture and environment have had on my personality, outlook, expectations, and perceptions.  I have been perhaps fortunate that those experiences have been diverse and have constantly challenged biases and prejudices in ways that have forced me to adopt a more critical view of the messaging (overt and otherwise) that has been working to shape my opinion. What I see in DC is a self insulating and perpetuating micro-climate that is distinct from what life is like in the vast majority of America and inexorably shapes the perceptions of those who live there.

I recently saw a report claiming that Democrats in the District make up 75% of the population, unaffiliated 16%, and republicans 6%.  Regardless of your political affiliation, you have to admit that DC is far from representative of the broader population.  About the only places where political affiliations are this polarized are deep inner cities where the population has become addicted to government largess and a few extreme rural areas where a small pocket of right-wing conservatives are the only humans within an entire voting district. This severe polarization, however, is not even a significant part of why DC should have figured prominently in Lewis Carrol’s tales.  Every time I have the misfortune of traveling there, I add experiences and anecdotes to my mental library chronicling the fantasy land that is DC.

My hotel receipt from my recent trip is a decent place to start.   The room cost me $239.00/night at a discount rate from a nation-wide hotel chain.  I can rent the same category of room almost anywhere else in the united states (other screwed-up megalopolises like LA and NY excepted) for around $120.00/night, and many places for around $90.00.  There are no extra amenities to justify the extra cost, and in fact, the hotel was in need of a refresh compared to a similar property in the same chain I stayed at in Omaha recently (incidentally for $110/night).  For the extra $119.00/night, I got the privilege of walking half a mile to a metro station in a humid 90 degrees, city lights shining through my less than blackout curtains, traffic, noise, limited cable channels, and slow Internet service.

This enhanced cost of living is not just for the transients.  A friend purchased a home on the outskirts of the NCR almost ten years ago for over $600,000.  For that price he got a three hour commute to a modest home on a postage-stamp of land tightly controlled by the HOA.  Eight years later, I built my dream-home on 5+ acres for well under half that amount.  In their mind, I am the crazy one.

This disparity seems lost on most who live in the NCR much above the poverty line.  Those with a family seem to think it normal to spend ten thousand or more dollars on a mortgage or lease each month while parking their Mercedes, Jaguar, BMW, or Cadillac SUV in a rented stall that costs them nearly as much as my mortgage.  The thought of not spending hundreds of dollars a month on each of the five or so extra-curricular activities for each of their 1.5 kids (if they have any) is heresy.  And as for the thought of putting them in public school, well… that is for “other people’s kids.”

For those too young to start a family (under 40, or maybe 50), a home and kids is unthinkable.  Extraordinarily expensive and crowded apartment high-rises are interspersed between large office buildings housing major defense contractors, consulting firms and think-tanks.  Things as simple as a functioning kitchen are tough to find, and functionally unnecessary because most food is prepared in a restaurant, usually with some fancy name and/or pretentious decor.  Life for this crowd revolves around work and play in search of “self actualization.”

Consider another take on the demographics.  I see in the District a relatively small set of very distinct and disconnected populations, only a few of which are statistically significant outside of the national capitol region (NCR)… First, and most visibly, there are the government employees. These people depend on the government for their paycheck which is quite large and well protected when taken in context.  This group has a vested interest in perpetuating and expanding the roles and responsibilities of the government and in expanding the benefits accrued to those who “serve.”  In the NCR, these employees fall into two primary categories…  The young and ambitious, and the old and powerful.  The young and ambitious want to be old and powerful, so they spend their days coddling and reinforcing opinions of the old and powerful.  The old and powerful spend their days doing “brain work” by loudly proclaiming the opinions that have been given them by one or more of the other power-broker classes (the young and ambitious or the rich and connected).  They all live lifestyles that would be unrecognizable to almost anyone from the “flyover states.”

The daily uniform for men in this class consists of expensive suits or designer shirts and ties.  Clothing that appears functional is a clear indicator that one is either a tourist or one of the various categories of servile underclasses.  A man-purse is a mandatory accessory for the young variety as is a hairdo and general demeanor that is sufficiently androgynous to avoid offending people of any sexual persuasion.  Women among the young and ambitious are generally skinny, pretty, wear skirts above the knee (often well above the knee), tight tops that expose substantial cleavage or otherwise draw attention to their frequently augmented breasts and are generally in their 20s or 30s.  The old and powerful women are rarely seen, but are hardened, wear pant suits, and are either chauffeured in or occasionally drive expensive luxury cars.  Middle-aged women seen in public are often tourists or under-class.

The most powerful class in DC though is not the collection of government employees.  It is the rich and connected, many of whom are at the disposal of large corporations dependent on government largess, and the remainder largely paid by the rich and powerful to use their connections to develop and propagate legal justifications or politically correct explanations that obfuscate the true nature of government actions.  Many of the latter are graduated from the old and powerful or pulled from the most ambitious and successful of the young who collected contacts and networks before switching to selling that information to the highest bidder.

The rich and connected are in a unique position.  They have at their disposal and routinely exploit information that can be used for or against those who are in positions of power.  They reward desired behavior with insights that, strangely enough, almost universally add to the personal wealth of the powerful or their close connections.  They use their access to media to manipulate messages and agendas.  Behavior that is disruptive is punished through leaks, disinformation campaigns, “spin,” ostracism, or other thuggish tactics.  Even the perception of the potential for punishment, coupled with the rewards of compliance, is more than adequate in almost all cases to silence real debate and discussion.  As a result of long years of participation, many of the old and powerful have also worked their way into the rich and influential category.  This is the pinnacle of DC success, and the real reason behind many of the decisions made.

Unfortunately, simply shutting down discussion and debate is not an option because there must appear to be two sides to each debate.  Representatives need to have materials for reelection campaigns.  To satisfy this need, spurious topics with important sounding and politically hot undercurrents are brought to the forefront to occupy the media and distract constituents while the old and powerful collude with the rich and influential behind the scenes to line their pockets and solidify or deepen their personal influence and wealth.

A short walk down any of the major streets will highlight another oddity.  Unlike other major cities that are built around one or more industries that have a requirement to produce something to survive, DC is founded squarely on the one and only organization that doesn’t need to produce tangible results, please shareholders in any real sense, and can “solve” its problems by giving itself more power, money, and influence.  Because of this, corporations in the city do not produce tangible products for end consumers.  Every major company with the resources to dedicate has an office in the NCR with the express intent of influencing governmental decisions in their favor so they can “bring home the bacon.”  Street after street is filled with offices for corporations like Lockheed, Boeing, Textron, Bell Labs, Raytheon, CACI, SAIC, and on, and on, and on.  Nowhere else in the world will you find such a concentration of ‘nonproductive’ employees.

This would make no business sense if the bureaucracy functioned in a fair and impartial manner.  However, big corporations don’t get and stay big by doing things that didn’t make business sense.  There is a form of unvoiced and notionally legal quid-pro-quo that keeps these offices gainfully employed.  Money translates into access, and access shapes policy which drives spending – constituents be damned.

If I sound somewhat cynical of our government, I am.  The miracle of it is that it works at all.  Throughout history, representative governments have collapsed when they became seriously corrupt and focused on purchasing votes through government programs.  Given the current state of things, I’m surprised we haven’t already gone over the edge.  Perhaps there is just enough of truth and honesty in our public servants (or at least fear of an informed public) to keep things from completely going off of the rails.  Then again, maybe we’re on the track and headed for the cliff with a full head of steam but just haven’t felt the rails fall out from under us yet.

 

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.

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.

Snake Oil – Thoughts on Temporal Hope

Where do you turn when hope seems lost?

Several years ago, a friend of mine shared his thoughts on this topic.  Jim was probably one of the happiest and kindest men I had ever met.  His whole life had been dedicated to the cheerful service of others, and he was beloved by a great many as a result.   Unfortunately, tragedy doesn’t seem to respect these kinds of distinctions, and struck Jim and his family rather abruptly and harshly.   Several months before the exchange around which this article is based, Jim and his wife Helen had traveled to Europe for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.  While there, Jim started to experience pain in his leg that wouldn’t go away and didn’t seem correlated to what he had been doing (exercising for example).

Upon returning to the United States, Jim was informed that he had a cancerous tumor in his hip.  Because of the nature of the tumor they would have to amputate his leg and remove part of his pelvis.  He was also facing rounds of Chemotherapy.  He would certainly never run again and would never walk without crutches.  I know many people who would have been crushed under this weight and become bitter and angry.  However, Jim being Jim, he faced this challenge wonderfully.  Nurses would argue over who got to attend him, and I don’t think I ever saw him angry, upset, or even outwardly depressed throughout the surgery, recovery, and extensive rehab.

As if this weren’t enough, while Jim was recovering from surgery Helen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Unlike Jim’s, Helen’s cancer was inoperable and had metastasized to other parts of her body.   She was facing intense chemotherapy with bleak prospects.  Over the course of her treatment she became progressively weaker and weaker.  After several rounds of treatment it became clear that the cancer was going to win it’s battle.  Modern science had done what it could, and the disease was going to take her life.

Jim and Helen both had great faith, and understood that life and family don’t end in death.  It provided great comfort to both of them to know that regardless of the outcome they were sealed together for eternity.  While it helped to have this perspective, human nature fears the separation of death, and Jim was inwardly struggling greatly with the looming loss of his wife of over thirty years.   The prospect of even a temporary separation in death was terrifying.

It was about at this point when Jim and I talked together while attending a church activity.  I was substantially younger than he and looked up to him as a mentor, so I took every opportunity I could to hear what was on his mind.  It was during this exchange that I first got a look into the sadness inside of him at that point, and some insight into some of what I would face later on.

I’m not sure how it came into the conversation, but Jim (who’s language was always above reproach) lamented the “scheisters hawking hope in a bottle.”  This was the strongest language I’d ever heard come from Jim, and it was said in the church cultural-hall to boot.  I was somewhat stunned.  It turns out he had recently been targeted by countless miracle cures courtesy of some variety of e-mail list he had been added to.  In normal conditions he would have deleted every one of them without thought, but at this point he was out of hope.  Helen was in the end-stages of her fight with the cancers inside her and was losing.

Jim had always been the  kind of person to calmly and rationally work through a problem rather than make an emotional decision.  Logic worked pretty well for him and was his default mode of operations.  However, he explained to me that there comes a point when almost all hope is gone, when the doctors are out of options, when they look you in the face and tell you they will try to make your loved-one as comfortable as possible while they are suffering and being slowly wrenched away from you, that rationality goes out the window and you cling to any kind of hope you can find.  The comment about the scheisters hawking hope was an expression of the cognitive dissonance he felt between the knowledge that this kind of hope was fruitless and the need to have ANY kind of hope.

At one level, he knew the miracle cures being offered were little more than distilled water sold by unscrupulous pain profiteers.  He knew there was no real chance these cures would work.  Were someone to ask his advice he would unreservedly counsel them to save their money.  However, when it came to his wife and the seemingly hopeless situation they faced, he told me “There comes a point where it doesn’t matter anymore.  You cling to false hope because it’s the only hope you have left.”

He said this with unspeakable sadness – sadness for the loss of his leg and lifestyle, sadness for the existence of conscious-free con-men who prey upon and exploit the grief and frailty of those in pain, and above all sadness for the impending loss of his wife.  I thought I understood him.   I didn’t then, at least not completely.

Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to see the concern in a doctor’s face as he struggles to understand what’s wrong with your loved-one and searches for anything that will make it better.  I’ve felt the inexpressible anguish and utter helplessness I believe can only be felt by someone watching their life’s companion slip away.  I’ve come to understand what Jim meant.

There does come a point where it doesn’t matter if something has any real hope of working or not.  You do it because it’s the only thing you can do, and doing nothing is unbearable.  You buy the exquisitely expensive snake oil and mortgage your financial future because you can’t cope with the prospect of a future alone with the nagging fear you could have done more.  You set aside the logic, reason, education, science, and evidence you have spent a lifetime cultivating for voodoo and witchcraft.  It doesn’t feel good, in fact it hurts mentally and is itself a source of sadness, but it’s better than doing nothing – your only alternative.

In my case, a miracle happened and I was granted a reprieve.  Liz is still here by my side, but the prospect of a relapse is real.  As much as I hate the idea of magic potions and snake oil, I have to admit that I spend a fair bit of money on it.  It grates on me, grinds against me, pulls me off balance, but it happens anyway because as uncomfortable as I am with the status-quo, I am more uncomfortable with the alternative.  It truly doesn’t matter anymore if it works or not.  Sometimes hope is the only real product that comes with hope-in-a-bottle, and I guess sometimes that’s enough.

Flying Solo

Way back in the dark ages when I was single and in college, I seriously contemplated spending the time and money required to get my private pilots’ license.  I even went so far as to get a few hours behind the controls of a Cessna 182.  It was enough to convince me I would love it and that I couldn’t afford to maintain it as a hobby if I was ever going to have a family.   I gave up my quest before my first “solo” flight.  I was disappointed, but accepted my fate with magnanimity; knowing that my first solo take-off and landing would have been a huge blast.

I had a similar experience a few years earlier without leaving the ground.  I have always loved being in control of anything with a motor and wheels, so it was a huge thrill the day I finally completed all the requirements to drive a car without direct supervision.  Driving solo was a huge landmark I had sought after since I first realized I could reach the gas-pedal and see over the dash at the same time.

Based on these two experiences, it might be reasonable to extrapolate that doing things “solo” is the logical end-state of development.  As we learn and grow here in this short life, we should strive to get better at them until we are capable of doing it on our own.  This however is a tremendous fallacy.

Consider the pilot scenario above.  It’s true that as you progress in development, you get to a point where you are capable of handling a well-behaved aircraft on your own, but that is far from the pinnacle.  Consider the cockpit of commercial flights.  As a general rule, these flights are made up of a flight crew with both a pilot and co-pilot.  While part of the motivation for this is redundancy in case one of the crew becomes incapacitated, the real reason is the capacity for load-sharing.  During the more critical portions of flight such as final approach and landing while on instruments, the pilot can become quite busy flying the airplane.  In addition to actually flying the plane, radio communications pick up during this phase of flight and include changing radio frequencies several times, not to mention additional activities and preparations.  By working as a team, the pilot and co-pilot are able to level out the load, sharing the tasks and cross-checking each other to ensure things are done correctly and efficiently.

In the case of a car, it didn’t take long for driving by myself to lose it’s appeal.  The radio and the open road (or congested street more often than not) was a poor substitute for having friends, then girlfriends, and eventually my own family with me in the car.  Focus shifted from driving as an end in itself to a means to get somewhere to do something.  In general, going somewhere is either a non-fun requirements-based thing or I’m taking someone with me.   Driving solo isn’t all it used to be cracked up to be.

So, why on earth am I talking about flying or driving solo…  I can’t remember how many people I’ve run into who’s pinnacle was being independent and on their own.  Friends and co-workers have  indefinitely postponed marriage and/or family because they don’t want to be “tied down.”  I’ve known far too many who left marriages and children in an attempt to seek “fulfillment”  free from the “restrictions” of family.  This universally saddens me when I encounter it.

When I was much younger, I made a high priority of moving out on my own and tackling life alone.  At first it was great being free to do as I chose, responsible to nobody but myself.  However, as I gained experience with the “single life,” I quickly realized how much of a load of crap I’d been sold.  As I gained more and more experience with it, I got more disillusioned, and eventually moved back in with my parents where I had a support structure compatible with my values.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to re-evaluate this concept as I’ve been compelled to fly solo in life for periods when I’ve been called away from home for work or other reasons, and it’s given me opportunity to reflect on the situation.  I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would intentionally choose to be alone.  On my own, I’m solely responsible for taking care of ALL the necessities ranging from cooking to shopping to laundry to completing my normal work.  That, on it’s own, isn’t too bad.  However, I find it’s the intangibles that make the most difference.

I’ve had the opportunity to explore  a wide variety of museums, cities, parks, and other attractions around the world during down-time on business travel.  In the best cases, I’ve had traveling partners who shared the experience.  However, those relationships are transitory, professional, or casual, and the richness that would result from sharing experiences with my family just isn’t there.  While I enjoyed visiting the Hyde Park in London, I experienced it on my own, and don’t have common experiences to re-live with someone who cares.

The more time I’m compelled to spend on my own, the more I appreciate the miracle that is family.  Learning to solo an airplane is just the beginning of a much longer process of becoming a fully qualified pilot.  Learning to trust and work as a team enables a much more diverse and interesting range of possibilities.  My family is my team.  They help me do more and be better than I could ever be on my own.