Just Because

Day care was closed yesterday for a Jewish holiday (Shmini Atzeret). So you did something better, Vera: you came over to our place.

At one point, I asked if you’d like to do something. I can’t recall what it was. You replied, “No.” I asked why not. You said, “Because.”

“Because.” I have to confess, I hadn’t expected such a retort from a 27-month-old. I laughed.

I didn’t push the issue because I thought your reply, although surprising, was sufficient. Basically, “because” or “just because” simply means you’d rather not, and you don’t feel compelled to justify your decision to anyone else.

That’s cool. You shouldn’t have to. The world would probably be a better place if all of us were more willing to take “because” for an answer.

Why didn’t you complete your homework, Johnny? Because.

Why did you not come to visit me? Because.

Why did you eat half of the peach pie? Because (and guilty as charged).

Why did you quit your job? Because.

Why did you vote for that person? Because.

Why don’t you have cable? Because.

Why did you move to Indiana? Because.

The older I get, the more “because” becomes acceptable. Often, it’s simply a matter of respecting boundaries and accepting the right of someone else to choose differently than we might.

Often, it’s simply a matter of perspective, and not allowing little things to blow up into big things.

It’s true that sometimes because is simply a dodge. But, if it’s their dodge and not yours, so what?

In my younger years, as a parent, I was probably more inclined to push the issue. With age, as a grandparent, I’m more inclined to think, That works for me!

Why the change?

Because.

Victimization and Vindictiveness

There are so many victims today. Not so many in reality. But many in self-perception.

Sadly, this sense of victimization leads to vindictiveness. Rooted in anger and outrage. Self-pity. Self-delusion. Entitlement. Fanciful expectations. Vile blame. Abdication of responsibility. Inaction. Passivity. Surrender.

Victimization abounds in our country today.

It’s nasty. Indeed, ugly. It diminishes our country. But that’s not the worst of it: it diminishes the individual.

I’m not sure how we got to this place. Perhaps it’s inevitable as a wealthy empire matures. And peaks.

I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure, however, that it’s something to be avoided, for no other reason than it’s self-destructive.

Vindictiveness works that way. You think you’re hurting someone else. Or that your self-righteousness elevates you. But, in reality, you’re turning on yourself. You’re allowing the good within you to be eroded.

If you want to catch a glimpse of some of the consequences, read Peter Hessler’s “Letter from Colorado: Follow the Leader” in a recent edition of The New Yorker.

It’s hard to read. It’s sad. Disconcerting. Pathetic — not the people, but the situation that’s led to this.

I’m not sure there is anything worse than thinking of yourself as a victim. And blaming others or the world for your condition.

The moment you think of yourself as a victim, it’s a downhill slide.

Try not to succumb to the temptation, Vera.

You will be tempted. All of us are at some point in our lives.

At times, I’ve succumbed. I know better. But its alluring power sometimes prevails. Even when you know it shouldn’t. Even though you know you are the only one who will be hurt.

Vindictiveness works that way. It gives the appearance of being directed outward. But it never is. It always eats the soul of the person who harbors it. The person who allows it to settle in.

If it settles in, recognize it for what it is and work to evict it as soon as possible, not because your grievances aren’t real or legitimate, but because it will do you in if you don’t.

Today, victimization and vindictiveness threaten to do our country in. Perhaps it will be done in. Perhaps the tide has crested and is in the process of breaking along the shore of history.

But perhaps not. Perhaps we will take charge of our individual and collective destinies. Perhaps we will reclaim our collective can-do spirit. Our fading courage and vision.

Perhaps the day will come when we no longer countenance that which is turning us against each other. Against ourselves.

I don’t know. But I do know that it’s serious.

In the meantime, one thing is certain: if we allow self-pity, anger and the urge to be vindicated to prevail, we will become that which we claim to loath. Self-loathing works that way. It’s insidious. And deceitful.

My prayer for you, Vera, is that your soul will overflow with gratitude. And that you will never embrace victimhood. Or be vindictive. Or wish ill on anyone or anything.

As a two-year-old, you are pure. Cling to that purity and goodness as much as you can. The world will try to steal it from you. Guard it jealously.

In the final analysis, perhaps that’s what life is all about: nurturing and protecting the goodness that was embedded within each of us at birth.

The Day Death Chose Not to Stop

I remember hearing the sound of a violent crash. The next thing I knew, I awoke, only to see a spidered windshield and deformed car door pressing against me. Concussion-induced amnesia stole from me (perhaps protected me from) other memories adjacent to the collision.

I do recall emergency personnel being on site, but don’t recall being extricated from the car or loaded into the ambulance. Vera, I remember calling your grandmother from the ambulance because I was concerned she’d go to the airport to meet me as planned. But I don’t recall sending an email and photo to her and your dad and uncle, although later I was presented with proof that I had. It was an odd thing to have done.

I recall arriving at the trauma center, the hall lined on both sides with medical personnel anticipating my arrival. Once on the table, I recall someone struggling to remove my wedding ring, to no avail. I recall suggesting lubricant. It worked.

I recall someone cutting off all my clothes. And I remember a doctor examining my spine for injury. I especially recall the intense pain as I was rolled on my side as they checked for internal hemorrhaging.

I’m sure there had to be more, but that’s all I remember, until being moved for a CAT scan. A short time later, I recall the excruciating pain as technicians endeavored to move me into position for x-rays.

Twelve hours later, after IV drips, pain meds, more tests, sutures, a failed attempt to set a bone, and a splint being plastered on me, I was discharged, barely able to walk but one lucky guy.

Reflecting on this day later, the thing that stood out for me, through it all — the trauma, pain and vast unknowns — is that I hadn’t experienced a single moment of fear.

It wasn’t a matter of courage. It was more like an act of grace. And peace.

Beginning with the moment I regained consciousness to the present, I have been experiencing an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and the feeling that death had passed by on that road, but for reasons I’ll never know, decided not to stop.

The paramedic remarked that I probably would not have survived if I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt. When looking at the crushed metal from my captive, scrunched position inside the car, and later when viewing a photo of the exterior of the car, I knew that it took more than the seatbelt to save me that morning and, at the very least, the injuries could have been much, much worse.

I’m healing now, as are the occupants of the other vehicle, who remain in my constant thoughts and prayers.

Yesterday afternoon, we picked you up from your school, Vera. I couldn’t lift you up to put you in the car seat, and I think you’re wondering why I have so many boos-boos and a strange thing on my arm. But it doesn’t seem to matter to you. And it doesn’t matter to me, either.

Today, I will be wheeled into an operating room for back-to-back surgeries. Bone stuff — nothing life threatening. And then I will get to know my oral surgeon and dentist even better. There are worse ways to spend time.

Along this short, intense journey, I’ve encountered people of compassion, ranging from health care professionals, taxi and shuttle drivers, airlines personnel, strangers who offered assistance at the airport, friends from Colorado extending their arms 1,000 miles, family and others.

I also encountered some people who weren’t helpful or, worse yet, were actively unhelpful. But I’m just going to pretend I didn’t.

Some people say they’re sorry. I don’t say it (because I appreciate their concern), but what I’m thinking is, “For what?” 

There have been times in my life that I’ve felt sorry for myself. But this hasn’t been one of them.

I used to close letters and emails (and sometimes still do) to certain people with the words, “Peace and grace to you.”

This past week, the words returned home to me.

 

Just Be Mindful of What You’re Up Against

According to a story in today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a “boom in federal prosecutions alleging theft or attempted theft of trade secrets.” I’m not the least bit surprised.

I’m not surprised because, if there is one thing life has taught me, it’s that most people are dishonest. Not all people, to be sure. But most.

I can’t prove it, but it seems as though dishonesty — in particular, stealing — has become more widely accepted during my lifetime, whether it’s stealing from the government (actually, from other citizens) by cheating on one’s taxes, stealing trade secrets, shoplifting, padding one’s expense reports, overbilling a customer/client/patient/etc., insurance fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, hacking a database, price fixing, misrepresenting the quality or character of services or products one sells, or any of the other garden variety ways of taking something that isn’t rightfully yours.

I don’t recall anyone warning me of this when growing up. To the contrary, I was led to believe that people are basically good, the inference being they are to be trusted. Right.

I have absolutely no interest in the philosophical debate over the true nature of humans. Whether they are “inherently” or “basically” good is of no consequence to me. I’m too practical for that. I’d rather focus on dealing with what is.

And what is isn’t a pretty picture, Vera. What is is this: if you assume a person is honest, you do so at your peril.

I suppose I should be grateful for this. After all, I’m a lawyer. I’ve drafted many contracts and been involved in suing quite a few people and organizations that have reneged on their commitments. In other words, I’ve profited from the shortcomings of humanity.

The security industry undoubtedly is grateful, too. They prosper from the threat posed by the untrustworthy in our midst.

But that’s not the point. The point is, don’t let your guard down (which, of course, is one reason we’ll continue to have a lot of lawyers — to help guard people and companies from the lies and false promises of others).

Fortunately, there are some people who can be trusted — people who would never dream of taking advantage of another through lies, misrepresentations or outright theft. Insofar as possible, try to funnel your business and dealings to such people. And try to avoid as best you can the other people.

Often, however, there isn’t any way of knowing whether someone is trustworthy or not. You will be tempted to infer trustworthiness even if the evidence is lacking. Again, you do so at your own risk.

In the meantime, companies will continue to steal each other’s trade secrets, and many will continue to rip off their customers in one fashion or another. People will continue to cheat on their taxes and shoplift. That’s life. I suppose it will never change.

At times, it may seem as though everyone is doing it and, therefore, that it’s O.K. If you ever have that sense or feeling, stop and reflect.

Ponder what it means to be willing to take or keep that which isn’t rightfully yours. And what you’d be giving up if you live your life in such a manner.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s a lot.

Perhaps the Amish Can Teach Us a Thing or Two

I grew up in Pennsylvania, not far from Amish territory. We always regarded Amish territory as Lancaster County, although since my childhood the Amish turf has expanded. There are now quite a few Amish living in close proximity to my childhood home.

The Amish were always a novelty of sorts: buggies and horses; no cars, electricity, or phones; plain dress; bad haircuts; detachment from the broader society. It was never a life that appealed to me, yet I was aware that most kids who grew up Amish remained with the community throughout their lives, even after being given an opportunity to leave.

This morning, when reading a blog post about digital minimalism by Cal Newport (Study Hacks blog), I came across this statement about the Amish and their decision to reject much of the technology I take for granted:

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

Such incredible intentionality, I thought.

It’s hard to imagine a community that consciously evaluates technology in such a way. The English (the Amish’s term for me and you) rarely if ever undertake such a self-examination. Instead, we automatically embrace new technology if we can afford it and if it brings us pleasure. Or at least if we assume it’s going to bring us pleasure (whether or not it actually does is a different question).

But are we better off for it? That’s another matter. And it’s a question we don’t wrestle with much if at all.

I do know that the Amish don’t seem to be worse off for not having embraced many of the technologies that are part of our lives — at least if the measure is happiness. And if the measure isn’t happiness, then what is it? What should it be?

I suppose the Amish would argue we (the English) tend to undervalue community and relationships. Has it occurred to us they may be right?

And if they’re right, how would we live our lives differently if we better aligned our decisions with what we truly value?

Personally, I think we tend to undervalue relationships and time. Consequently, we have a plethora of fractured families and communities, and we tend to lives our lives like there is an inexhaustible supply of time when, in reality, time is a very limited, precious resource that could be gone in a heartbeat (literally).

There are some things I think we overvalue, too. Money and stuff head the list. I never cease to be amazed by the amount of storage space Americans rent in which to keep their excess stuff. And by the amount of debt Americans carry so they can buy more stuff.

But my goal, Vera, isn’t to convince you that my list of under and over-valued things is better than anyone else’s. Rather, it’s merely to raise the questions, might the Amish be on to something? And might we be well served by extending their question (does it do more harm than good) beyond decisions about technology?

I think they are and it does.

Life constantly tempts us to compromise our values for something else.

Often, the something else is something someone wants us to embrace (and value) because they can make money off of our decision to buy it. Or pursue it. Or acquiesce to it.

Often, the something else is merely ego gratification and short-termism — the failure to learn from history and to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It may be the right thing to do. But it also might be something that undermines our values and detracts us from the things — and people — that truly matter. The things that bring happiness into our lives. Or a deep sense of purpose or contentment. Or simply peace and grace.

Does it do more harm that good?

It’s not a bad question to ask ourselves each and every day of our lives.

Tipping: Backing Up Your Beliefs with Money

If you think that there should be a minimum wage, then you should pay–people who think there should be minimum wages should voluntarily pay everybody around them the difference between whatever they are getting and that minimum wage. And, when you go to McDonald’s, you should leave a $3 tip or $4 tip to the person. If that’s really what they want to do, they should do it themselves. – Nassim Taleb

I agree. In part. I disagree with Taleb concerning minimum wages. But I agree that we should spend consistent with our professed beliefs. Walk the talk, if you will.

I think we underpay many people for their work and contributions. Taleb would argue that the market decides. He’s right of course. But should we settle for market determinations? I don’t think so.

Market forces aren’t perfect. We alter those forces in many ways that benefit people of education, power and privilege (those born into rich families). We erect barriers to protect certain professions and people. We skew public policies and tax codes to favor one group over another, and to favor capital over labor. In short, the market isn’t allowed to do its will; rather, we alter market forces to favor the select few. So I don’t have the same confidence in markets that Taleb does. Consequently, I support a minimum wage. But it doesn’t end there.

Do the math. You can’t live on a minimum wage job. Yet political support for increases to the minimum wage simply doesn’t exist at the national level. So it’s up to people who think it’s wrong to pay people so little. It’s up to us to do some economic justice.

It’s not always easy to effect justice, but in many cases, it’s actually quite easy. We can tip.

Restaurants are an obvious example. Lodging establishments are another. The people who deliver my paper in the middle of the night are another.

We recently moved. Moving presents quite a few opportunities. The manual laborers who load and unload the vans. The people who hang the blinds. The men who constructed the retaining wall. Etc. Etc.

I lost count, but I spent several thousand dollars in gratuities over the past several months in connection with our move. I was glad I could.

I was a decent tipper at restaurants my entire life, but in recent years have turned it up a notch. Gratuities now range from 20 to 100%, depending on the size of the bill and level of service.

So what’s the point of all this, Vera. The point isn’t my tipping practice. Rather, the point is the same one Taleb made: we always have the option of backing up our professed beliefs with our actions. And the most telling action typically involves the way we spend our money.

Our spending has a way of separating the real from the fake words and beliefs. It’s not a bad thing to endeavor to be as real as possible.

Ordinary Heroes

Earlier this week, you meet a hero, Vera. You don’t know it, and you won’t remember. You’re too young. Hopefully, you’ll meet heroes when you’re old enough to remember.

The hero you met is our neighbor Barry. He’s lived in our neighborhood for 35 years. Ours is a new house. The builder tore down an old house and cleared the lot to build our house. We didn’t live in the area and have never met anyone who lived where our house now stands. But Barry did.

In fact, Barry rescued them. His neighbors’ house (where ours now stands) was on fire. The homeowners were elderly. Barry went into the burning house and carried each one out over his shoulder.

A policeman arrived. Barry told him that it was possible there were kids in the house because grandkids (like you!) frequently stayed over. The policeman said he was trained to avoid dangers. He wasn’t about to enter a burning building. So Barry went back in. There were no kids.

Barry’s retired now. He’s concerned how the community is changing. All the changes and rapid growth are unsettling. So much has changed. So many people have moved away or died.

Nowadays, he volunteers at a local church to give himself something to do. He also likes attending to his yard and landscaping. He seems happy. And pretty ordinary, in a good sort of way.

Of course, Barry’s anything but ordinary; he’s extraordinary. He risked his own life to save the lives of others.

“Hero” is an overused word these days. In its overuse, it has been diminished. When you meet people like Barry, the word reclaims its roots and regains its strength.

Heroes come in different varieties, of course. And each of us probably has a slightly different meaning we ascribe to the word.

In my lexicon, it connotes courage. Bravery. Sacrifice. Caring about something else, or someone else, enough to risk something you hold dear. Perhaps even your life.

Sometimes we cast sculptures of our heroes. Or put their names on a wall. Sometimes, we don’t do anything. Sometimes, they’re not even noticed.

No one can strive to become a hero. That would be antithetical to the very concept. That would be putting yourself first.

People become heroes when circumstances confront them that call for a choice. Sometimes they have time to think about it. Sometimes, as with Barry, they must decide on the spot.

None of us should strive to be a hero. But I think perhaps each of us should strive to become the kind of person who, when presented by such circumstances, would make the right choice.

Marrying the Right Person

I don’t know if you’ll marry anyone, Vera. But if you do, think about it.

One of the keys to a happy life is avoiding big mistakes. Marrying the wrong person can be one of the biggest mistakes you could possibly make. So, naturally, try not to get it wrong.

I was lucky. I stumbled into a great marriage. Well, perhaps it wasn’t entirely a stumble. I wasn’t nearly as smart when I was 16 (when I started dating your grandmother) as I thought I was — or at 21 when I married your grandmother — but I was smart enough to marry up. That’s my first suggestion: marry up.

Your grandmother was and is smarter than me. And a better person in almost — no, in every — respect. That’s what I mean by marrying up.

Your great grandmother probably also would tell you to marry into a good family. I used to scoff as such advice, but, frankly, experience has proved my mother right more often than not. You’ll be marrying not only a spouse but marrying into a family. Never underestimate the power of genetics. Or engrained familial dysfunctionality. In short, be sure the family passes muster.

That’s about all I could come up with, so now I’m turning to two guys from the investment world who are two of the wisest people I’ve encountered (by reading and listening, not personally): Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Here is some of what they’ve said about the keys to a good marriage:

“If you really want a marriage that will last, look for someone with low expectations.”

“Make sure your spouse has the same thoughts on the same big things.” I’m not totally sold on this one, mainly because James Carville (ardent Democrat) and Mary Matalin (Republican operative turned Libertarian) seem so happy together. But it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. I have to admit, I don’t think I could live with anyone who thought Donald Trump was a decent human being or remotely fit to be president. Or who thought Roberto Clemente wasn’t God’s gift to Pittsburgh (hell, to all of humanity) and one of the greatest ballplayers to ever play the game.

“Don’t marry someone to change them.” I’ve seen people try to change their spouses over the years. I can’t recall it ever working out well.

“Don’t keep score.” (Thank goodness your grandmother heeded this advice.)

“Look for someone who will love you unconditionally.” Come to think of it, I’m not sure that anything else is truly love.

“Marry someone who is a better person than you are.” (I did!) Warren takes it even further: “Always associate with people who are better than you.”

“Choose a spouse who believes in you.” And why would you be tempted to marry anyone who doesn’t? I don’t know, but it happens.

I could go one, but you get the point: it’s an important decision. Perhaps the most important of your life. Treat it as such.

Oh, I left out one important criterion: choose someone your pap-pap likes.

 

I Hope You Will Be Treated Unfairly

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.

I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.

Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time, so that you don’t take friends for granted.

I wish you bad luck, again from time to time, so you will be conscious of the role of chance in life, and understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely, deserved, either.

And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.

I hope you will be ignored, so you know the importance of listening to others. And I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.

Whether I wish these things or not, they are going to happen, and whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

These are the words of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, delivered this month at the commencement of Cardigan Mountain School.

They speak for themselves.