Category Archives: Choices

Out of Balance

Day after day, I have hesitated to write here because the onslaught of news has kept me off-balance.  There have been few times in my life when the matters of politics, social upheaval, public health and dysfunctional economics have all come together with such overwhelming force.  Every one of the issues is daunting.  Facing them all  together is nearly beyond our imaginations.  But here we are, and the national nightmare will not be gone when we awaken tomorrow.

We are living within a perfect storm of challenges.  It’s as if the crises before us conspired to come together at the same moment to test our individual and national resolve.  In the past we have demonstrated strength and resilience and prided ourselves in the effort.  But what about our capacities to triumph over all of this?  Surely it seems that we are being tested.  It’s a little bit like recovering from a physical injury: we nurse ourselves and rest and rehabilitate, and then we’re whole again.  But facing an injury, an illness, an emotional strain and loss of eyesight is an entirely different proposition; recovery is not so simple, nor so assured. That’s when looking at our circumstances requires a more holistic diagnosis, because often the presence of one infirmity causes others.

Over the past year, I have faced a multitude of physical challenges, a sequence of oddities that have offended (and physically hurt) my beloved sense of fitness and well-being.  First it was my hip.  Then my lower back and joints.  This rheumatological malaise was followed by a spinal matter.  The adjustments I had to make for that gave rise to tendonitis in the left ankle.  And, of course, favoring the left ankle caused bruising of my right heel.  Add in a first-ever bout with kidney stones and the picture becomes rather self-explanatory: where one part of the whole is ill, the rest of the parts are not far behind.

Nationally, we are ill.  We have a political system that is failing us, exacerbated by a president whose sole objective is narcissistic self-service.  That dysfunction has amplified a malaise of polarization which prevents even a pretext of collaborative problem-solving.  Those fixed contrapositions have laid a fertile groundwork for a Covid-19 pandemic in which to gestate, taking more than 100,000 lives in our country so far.  The resultant unemployment, loss of stability and economic collapse have fostered a hopelessness not experienced since the Great Depression.  And that despair is the powder keg which the murder of George Floyd ignited, now into our seventh day of dystopian unraveling.  We are loathe to wonder what the next pain might be, what disablement is yet to come.

While I have no single diagnosis for all of the symptoms of our current disease, I do know how some of our best organizations go about the process of problem-solving.  The process is intended to “drill down” to the root cause of the ailment, to identify the most underlying base of pain.  In the present instance, I submit that we know what that root cause is.

Underlying our national malady is a persistent and growing inequality- racial, social and economic- that has been the bedrock for growth and power in our country since its founding.  There is no disputing the foundation upon which the U.S. grew to unparalleled prominence in the world: the lands we control today were territories inhabited by Native Americans long before the presence of the first Caucasian.  The labor upon which the “new” landowners relied for expansion and wealth creation was provided substantially by black slaves imported from other lands.  Inequality is a cornerstone of this nation’s history, whether we feel justification for it or not.  And it persists.

From obscene pay equity issues within our economy (Really?  A CEO is really worth 500 times the compensation of his her workers?) to the knee of a white police officer on the neck of his black suspect (for maybe passing a counterfeit $20 bill?), hostile inequality remains at the forefront of national policy, practice and preference.  It’s there because we allow it.  We prefer it.  In the aftermath of daily upheavals, we hear elected officials or neighborhood residents making the claim, “This is not who we are.”  But it is.  Otherwise, neither the inequality which spawns it nor the  rioting in response to it would be happening.

That is not to say that it must be this way, only that it is this way.  The central mantra of our economic system says that if one works hard and applies creativity and motivation to opportunity, financial and social success can be had.  What is not made clear in that proposition is that in today’s culture of winner-take-all, that achievement will be at an often dangerous expense of others.  This isn’t an argument against free enterprise or the promises of risk-reward.  Rather, it’s simply the underlying truth, the underlying cause, of the inequalities that are driving many of the awful symptoms witnessed this summer so far.

Holistic well-being exists when the body is in synch with itself, when the systems and appendages are well and complementing one another.  A nation’s health is exactly the same: no individual can achieve  maximum well-being as long as others are not well.  As a result, we’ll have some decisions to be made in the months ahead, once the smoke clears and political actions have been promised.  We’ll either have interventions that we’re willing to embrace, or we won’t.  We’ll actually deliver the systemic change promised over decades of disparity, or we won’t.  At the end of the day, it will be up to us to determine whether the level of inequality has finally become intolerable, or whether a knee to the neck is just something we prefer to live with….

 

When A Man

When a man acts, he pronounces himself to the world.

When a man who has become a leader enriches himself and his family at the expense of his followers, he is a syphon;

When a man speaks words that betray reality, he is a liar;

When a man sees himself as the only answer to every question, he is a fool;

When a man is willing to sacrifice the good name of another to protect his reputation, he is a traitor;

When a man berates and belittles others to make himself appear strong, he is a bully;

When a man delights in the death of another- any other- he is a tin man;

When a man professes his innocence in the face of his guilt, he is a coward;

When a man must sing his own praises in order to be noticed, he is a braggart;

When a man has dealt away his dignity and his morality, he is without a soul….

 

Never An Easy Road

Truth-telling has never been “the easy way.”

In all of history, mankind has too often concluded that truth tends to hurt us.  Whether in refusing to face a reality which we don’t wish to acknowledge or bending a reality to serve some other purpose, we are masters of deceit.  The continuing deaths of 130 Yemeni  children per day is a truth better left unknown.  Thousands of immigrants approaching the southern U.S. border are more easily dismissed when seen as criminals.  We even bend the truth to our own detriment, as when misrepresenting to our physicians how much we exercise, how much we drink, what we eat.  (Really?)

One of the great ironies is that speaking the truth- which is said to set us free- is one of the most difficult tasks of our lives.  Which is why we stand in such awed respect of those who summon the will to say the truth, regardless of the cost.  One such individual is profiled in the “Nica Update” section of this website.  Our most recent entry there presents the testimony of Ligia Gomez, former Manager for Economic Research for the Central Bank in Nicaragua, and Political Secretary of the Sandinista Leadership Council in that State institution.  Read her story, an increasingly rare profile in courage and truth-telling.  She has given up much in speaking her truth.

In our complex and results-driven existence, we tend to value what we can possibly get done, and think less about how the thing has been done.  The current U.S. president likes to heap praise upon himself for the current strength of the U.S. economy.  What he will never talk about is the cost of this economy- in terms of debt, environmental degradation and  the threat to our very planet- to be born by future generations.  In other words, the truth we are unwilling to tell our children is that we are creating future burden for them for our own comforts today.  That truth is a painful one; it’s much nicer to contemplate living in excess and comfort today:  have you seen the numbers?  Simply fantastic!

Of course, truth is rarely an absolute.  It is shaped by our life experiences, our feelings of compassion, and ultimately just how willing we may be to live with the discomfort that truth creates.  No one owns the market on truth.  Maybe the best we can do is to be truthful with ourselves before demanding the truth from others. Self-truth gives us the opportunity to be truthful with others and better qualified in calling out deceit when we hear it….

 

The Virtue of Virtues

A long-time friend of mine recently bestowed a gift on me, one that has intrigued, perplexed and annoyed all at the same time.  It may seem strange that one small gift could accomplish all of this, but given the nature of the giver, I would expect no less.

George is an octogenarian, and one who has stuffed a great many experiences into his years, whether in vocation, family, service to others or contemplation of self.  For these reasons, as well as the fact that he is simply a very nice man, I enjoy meeting with him every so often for excellent conversation.  Neither one of us will ever be able to recount the winners and losers at The Academy Awards, but both of us like to expound upon what is right and what is wrong with the world today.  We both pretend to have the answers, if not the questions.

The gift he brought to me is no less than a presentation of life’s virtues.  One hundred thoughtful descriptions of moral excellence and goodness of character are printed on 4X5 cards, along with certain actions which embody the particular virtue.  They are a product of The Virtues Project, an international initiative to inspire the practice of virtues in everyday life.  Each day at breakfast, I’m confronted with a new aspect of right action and thinking which may or may not be attributable to myself.  But they’re good triggers for thought and conversation with my wife, as I either claim ownership of a virtue or confess my weakness of it.  (I am too afraid to keep track of whether I have more “hits” than “misses.”)  The object is not keeping score, but reflecting on one’s personal posture.

The experience is stimulating.  I mean, how often do most of us have the questions posed about our daily existence and how we have chosen to live it?  Consider matters of integrity.  Honesty.  Humanity.  Commitment. Honor.  Gratitude.  Faith.  Empathy.  Grace.  Generosity.  Love.  Peacefulness.  Responsibility. Sacrifice.  Tolerance.  Truth.   The list is as long as it is deep.  Serious reflection of virtue is sobering, affirming and complex, all at the same time.

Yet there is a sort of elitist quality about contemplation of such things.  My past week in Nicaragua reminds me that consideration of manners and philosophies often becomes subjugated in light of the daily grind of feeding one’s family or securing the particulars of suitable shelter.   In some cases, circumstances tend to bend absolute virtues, or at least place them in conflict with other virtuous aims.

I do not imply that Nicaraguan peasants are without virtuous living; in fact, the reality is quite the opposite.  My experiences with rural Nica farmers often have been object lessons about living with dignity and hope despite enormously difficult circumstances.  Virtuous behaviors come from within, cultivated from generations of living in concert with their faith, the earth and one another, rather than from a conscious deliberation of what “ought to be.”

What occurs to me in the understanding of living against great odds is that the opportunity for meditation on matters of virtue and how to cultivate such behaviors is almost non-existent.  The conscious deliberation of what “ought to be” is too often a luxury afforded to those who are well off enough to indulge in contemplation of 4X5 cards.

Perhaps the observations are of no note.  Certainly, those who have been blessed with opportunity for musing on such matters have brought about only a modest degree of change and equity in the world: children still starve against the virtues of  Generosity, Humanity, Justice, Mercy and Sacrifice.  In my own reading of the virtues, I long for the recognition of them inherent within myself, regardless of the words on the cards.  But it is not always so, and the gentle reminders of what I could be are blessings to embrace.

There’s still time.  The questions are not complete, the answers not finished, our lives are not done, our legacies are not written and our virtues are not known until the end of our days….

 

 

Choices

My wife and I were looking at some photos of ourselves the other day, marveling at how young we once looked and subsequently commiserating at how old we appear today.  I stared for some time at one photo in particular, one that seemed to capture the relative innocence and naivete of the young man in question.  I tried to recall his state of mind at the time of the photo, what issues weighed heavily upon him, and the decisions with which he would be confronted in the days and years ahead.  Hindsight is a wonderful perspective to play with; when you already know the result, the journey becomes an interesting study of choices.

Each of us is, after all, the sum total of choices we have been permitted to make throughout our journey of life.  Our choices reflect not only preferences but, more importantly, our values, our principles, our character.  They serve as articulations of who we wish to be and of who we actually are.  And they are the milestones of our journey, marking the signal events of our lives.

Choices are the acts of bringing to life our beliefs.  They are the expressions of our innermost feelings about lifestyles, about the type of vocation to which we aspire.  Choices reflect our most intimate feelings about having a family and what is important in our personal and spiritual lives.  Choices are dynamic portraits of who we are.  I reflected long and lovingly about the choices that the young man in the photograph made over his coming years, with a sense of satisfaction that his decisions had been, for the most part, the right ones for his own unique psyche.

But what if I had not had the luxury of choice?  What might my portrait look like if my life, instead, had been channeled at every turn. if the circumstances of my being were such that I had no choice?

I might never have been introduced to and courted by music.  Maybe I would not have encountered the opportunity to know sports and fitness, the elements of my physical well-being.  Perhaps I would never have known the centering peace of my spirituality.  What if there had been no option for education?  Possibly I’d have served in the military during the Viet Nam war.  What if Katie and I had never met?  Our adopted children would have been raised in different homes; our mutual, familial love for one another would never have come to be.  Maybe our beautiful grandchildren would never have been born.  What if circumstance had dictated that I spend my days in search of food instead of organizational strengthening?  The list of choice-based outcomes is nearly endless.  How might you own life have evolved differently if you had not had the blessing of choice?

The luxury of choice stems, in part, from political philosophies which recognize and value human independence.  It also arises from circumstances that allow the human spirit to envision new aspirations and realities for itself.  In the absence of these elements, choice is minimized.  And outcomes are dramatically different.  It’s true everywhere.  In the U.S.  In Nicaragua.

Winds of Peace Foundation works with many organizations and individuals in Nicaragua who have few choices.  They are moved in directions dictated by their realities and their histories, in the former cases often motivated by need for survival, in the latter cases motivated only by what they know from previous generations.  And when motivation stems from either absolute need or limited knowledge, then choice is often a forgotten, impractical dream.  The nature of the Foundation’s work is to create the environments for more choice, with the certain knowledge that, over time,  greater choice invariably leads to better outcomes.  I wonder what Nicaragua might look like today if their history was populated with greater choice and fewer outside impositions that eliminated it.

In the years ahead, I expect to make lots of choices about things.  Perhaps the Foundation will adopt some new methodologies. Maybe I’ll move into a new vocation altogether.  I might do some more writing.  My wife and I will make some determinations about eventual retirement.  We’ll think about travel that might be important to us.  I’ll even continue to choose the kinds of food I want to eat, whether for my health or for my enjoyment.  But whatever the issue, I’ll have in mind my gratitude for having the opportunity to choose, and a hope to be a resource to those who do not….