Christmas Is a Great Time for Choosing How to Live

Whining gets old fast. No one like to be around a whiner.

If I find myself complaining about something, I have to ask myself, then why am I not doing something about it?

No one likes to be around a complainer. Incessant complaining makes for a very sour person. It’s hard to be happy if you’re always complaining.

So one thing I’ve learned over the years, Vera, is either do something about it or shut up.

Of course, that’s easier said than done.  Often, action requires courage. It may entail risks. And even absent real risk, inertia can be a powerful force.

I suspect most everyone has failed to act when they were moved to act, preferring instead to sit tight and complain. I know I have. In each case, however, I can say it was a mistake.

You see it playing out now. I follow news and commentary rather closely, mainly because I’m interested in world affairs, politics, religion, economics, philosophy, finances and the human condition generally. But I’ve had to stop following certain people because of their obsession with the recent election. Bluntly put, they’ve become whiners.

The unimaginable did happen in their minds (as well as mine). Someone totally unfit for the presidency won. America rolled the dice and took a chance on an impulsive, vindictive demagogue who appears to suffer from a narcissistic personality disorder. But it was America’s choice to make. And America made it. All the whining and complaining in the world won’t turn back the clock.

That’s not to say anyone need accept it. Far from it. Rather, it is to say that when we encounter a situation we deem so thoroughly unacceptable and fraught with risk and injustice, we should do, peacefully, what we can to change it, or at the very least temper its effects. That’s particularly so if it’s a matter of justice.

Yet usually it’s best to stop and reflect before acting. There is nothing to be gained by rashness in such situations. Take a deep breath, consider the situation deeply, ensure you’re putting it into proper perspective and then decide what to do about it.

To that point, I found the words of Michael Tigar to be helpful. Mike, a lawyer, is one of the most remarkable people with whom I’ve ever had the privilege of working. He’s not only off-the-charts smart but he’s also a man of integrity and goodness who has a calling to help those whom society might otherwise trample. Most importantly, Mike has been a man of action.

It’s a shame Mike never got that Supreme Court nomination that was talked about at one time; he would have made a great justice and the entire country would have benefited immensely from his wisdom, of that I have no doubt.

In any case, here’s some of what Mike had to say from his retirement perch to those who despair about the recent turn of events:

1.  This is not our first rodeo. These anti-human ideologies have arisen and have been resisted many times in our national history. We must study those episodes, beginning with the Alien & Sedition Acts of the John Adams years, through the slavery controversy, the anti-Asian legislation and sentiment, lynching, and all the rest of it. Pick up Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States. You can get it used on Amazon. Then read Peter Irons’ A People’s History of the Supreme Court. The first step out of despair is to get perspective.

2.  Understand how we got here. The disaffection of an abandoned working class has, in the history of many countries including our own, led to the recrudescence of right-wing movements infected with racism. My earlier blog posts cite some of the relevant material. We cannot resist these evils unless we can convince those displaced and left behind by the “new economy” that there are real-life solutions to their concerns.

Mike added:

4.  Be yourself: everyone else is taken. The story is told of Zusha, the Chassidic master, crying on his deathbed. His students asked him, “Rebbe, why are you so sad? After all the mitzvahs and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!” “I’m afraid!” said Zusha. “Because when I get to heaven, I know God’s not going to ask me ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ or ‘Why weren’t you more like King David?’ I’m afraid that God will ask ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?’ And then what will I say?!”

5.  You are not alone. Organizations devoted to protecting human rights have been flooded with offers to volunteer. Look around.

And don’t forget humor. I was surprised Mike wrote this, but it’s part of what makes Mike great: he never lost the ability to laugh and enjoy life, notwithstanding all the injustice he saw. I also feel a little validated by Mike’s comments because I follow Mr. Trump’s tweets religiously and often find them to be a source of laughter despite lacking such purpose (which makes me feel a little guilty because they concern issues of potential major consequence). But I think Mike is right:

Watch Saturday Night Live. Alec Baldwin soldiers on, and Donald Trump’s angry tweets are so much fun to read.

Mike also addresses that which often fosters inaction, the feeling that we’re too small and too insignificant to make a difference.

No act of resistance, compassion, or assistance is too small to be considered worthy of your time. A girl was walking on the beach, at the margin of the tide. She had picked up a starfish that had washed ashore and tossed it back into the water. A man saw her and said, “You know, there are thousands of those starfish that wash ashore. Do you expect to make a difference?” “Well,” the girl replied, “it made a difference to that one.” Example: if you are a lawyer, you can look around and see plenty of injustice. Take up a case or cause, however “small” it may seem.

Mike also reminds us that we should not allow our actions to be judged by the results they are likely to achieve.

10.  We cannot let anxiety about our own ability to get a result to deter us from right action. Thomas Merton wrote:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

11. We must begin as we mean to go on. If we are to make a society based on mutual respect, human flourishing, and the prospect of human love, we must treat each other in just the way we want that society to treat all people. It is a valid reproach to the movement for change that at times the needs and concerns of some have been subordinated in various ways. This danger has been acknowledged by rebel poets William Butler Yeats and Bertolt Brecht. Yeats wrote “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Brecht wrote:

“Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh.”

And then Mike tells us he is un-retiring. As I said, Mike is a man of action.

13. Ring a little change on old Joshua: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve, but as for me, I will serve the cause of ending injustice.” (Compare Joshua 24:15.) As for me, I am “un-retiring,” probably to teach law students how to acquire and use the tools they will surely need.

Mike closes with these words, which he wrote this in my memoir Fighting Injustice:

“Were there no injustice, men would never have known the name of justice.” The Greek poet and philosopher Heraclitus wrote this some 2,500 years ago. Edmond Cahn captured this idea in his provocative book, The Sense of Injustice. I have never been able to parse all the theories of right – natural law, positivism, utilitarianism. I have tried to pay attention to what is going on around me, and to look at what needs correcting. This approach is necessarily based on conflict, on a sense of the dialectical way in which history moves through the struggle and resolution of opposites.

In self-improvement meetings, this sort of thinking is known as doing “the next right thing.” More elegantly, C.S. Lewis reassured someone who complained of lacking a grand vision, saying that on a dark mountain path at night, we would rather see a few yards ahead than to have a view of some far horizon. Derrida captured the thought with his aphorism, “Je voudrais apprendre à vivre enfin.” Finally, I want to learn to live, and to teach what I know about living.”

Vera, you should not assume Mike’s words are applicable only to current events, which will have long passed by the time you can read and consider this post. Nor should you assume they are limited to the realm of politics (although I could argue everything is political). Rather, you should find within these words important questions, namely, What shall be your calling? What, if anything, will you do to make the world a better place? How will you respond to the calling of love and compassion that resides in the hearts of all men and women?

Whiners do not make the world a better place. The people who make the world a better place are those who are troubled by something and act to change it — those who heed the voice within — those who learn the source of happiness and contentment and the joy of giving — those who see rainbows through the clouds.

When their trouble is rooted in love and compassion, and an awareness of injustice and an insatiable desire for justice, then they become something far larger and greater than they could have otherwise been.

Whether they accomplish anything major in the world’s eyes is of no consequence, for in their struggle they “learn to live, and to teach what [they] know about living” and, in so doing, they become light within the darkness.

They become the hand and voice of God.

How could that possibly not be enough?

There is no better time to consider these questions than the day we celebrate the birth of the One who taught us how to live.

_________________________

P.S. Despite the language and words chosen, the authorities cited, none of the above is dependent upon a belief in a deity, creator or other-worldly god. The fact of the matter is, each of us, whether religious or irreligious, embraces certain values and holds certain principles dear. Each of us worships something or somebody. Each of us must choose how to live our life, in the time and place in which we find ourself.

I would go further and argue that the urge and power of love, compassion and giving resides in each of us as well, without regard to our beliefs — as does the need to matter. The feeling of insignificance and irrelevance stands outside our door at all times, always waiting to steal our love for one another.

What is the source of these urges and the power of these intangibles? Here is where people’s opinions and beliefs diverge. Yet such divergence does nothing to obviate the underlying reality.

For me, at this stage of my life as time and experience has formed my understanding in ways behind my youth, what is important is not what I believe (which is not static in any event, or rooted in provable facts); rather, it’s what I do — it’s how I live. And whom and what I love.

Wrapping myself in religiosity, holy garb or right theology or philosophy or, conversely, in the known and the physical world as we can see, measure and verify it, is of no consequence to my brothers and sisters who inhabit this planet. And if it is of no consequence to them, how can it be to me?

We must choose how to live, Vera. Indeed, we must learn how to live. It sounds easier than it is. Or perhaps it is easier than we make it out to be. I’m not sure.

But I am pretty sure that this is the plight of humans: there are many gods vying for our affection. Whether or not we believe Jesus was more than human, we inevitably fall in love with him (albeit not necessarily in the exclusionary way much of Christianity presents him) or reject him.

And if we fall in love, it cannot be only with the innocent, unthreatening baby in the manger. For that is where the story began; it is not where it ended.

Indeed, it has not ended at all.

 

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