Some Big Questions with Small Answers

From time to time I take stock by asking myself some big questions. In case you’re interested, Vera, here are my answers as of today (in other words, either the questions or answers, or both, could change):

What’s the purpose of life?

Perhaps there is none. My focus is on experiencing life fully.

What stands in the way of contentment and happiness?

Three things come to mind: 1) desire, 2) the need to make a difference and 3) the idea that I and the world should be something we’re not.

Is there a creator-being (God)?

No one knows. Moreover, it’s a question that need not be answered.

What is the prime age?

Physically, our 20s and even into our 30s. Cognitively, our mid-20s to mid-40s. Emotionally and psychologically, we can improve with age; there is no reason to believe we ever have to peak (subject to disease).

What’s the most important factor to consider in deciding where to work?

The attributes of the people who work there: their purpose, expertise, standards (both performance and ethical), and values.

What deserves more attention than it gets?

The inner life. The external receives nearly all our attention.

What are the most precious things in life?

Authentic, caring relationships. And experiences that excite us.

Is money the root of all evil?

No, although it’s the root of much evil. But ego plays a major role, too.

If there is no god, is there even such a thing as evil or sin?

Depends on what you mean by it. Clearly, there are things that harm oneself, others, or the earth. Call it what you want.

What would I do different if I had the opportunity to start over?

Not spend so much time looking for answers that don’t exist. Seek deeper understanding and become more aware of the knowable. Recognize the dangers of the ego and desire. Waste less time in meetings and watching TV and sporting events. Accept reality, expect nothing from others or fate, and be less judgmental. Eat less sugar and sugar-containing products. Be a better listener. Start my own business or firm. Be less attached to, dependent upon, and concerned with others and the ego. Value relationships more. Work less and play more. Live more in the moment.

What’s the best movie I’ve watched, the best book I’ve read, the best president we’ve had, the best college, etc.?

I’m tapped out with our obsession with rankings and hierarchies. They’re a distraction and waste of time.

What constitutes a good book?

One that’s worth reading more than once. If you want to know what authors and books I value, come and look at my bookcase (and the floor surrounding it).

What would I do different in rearing my children?

Be less concerned with imparting values and what I thought was knowledge, and regulating conduct, and more focused on helping them discover things and gain a deeper understanding of people and themselves. Ask the question “why?” more often.

What do you think of organized religion?

It demands I embrace too many ideas I no longer believe are true or necessary or even beneficial. And I’ve grown weary of the way the institution manipulates people through guilt, embraces obvious charlatans, and condones — indeed, helps perpetuate — ideologies and power structures that subjugate and pacify people. So organized religion no longer has a place in my life. Even more personally, it filled my psyche with the seeds of self-doubt and self-loathing, which nearly killed me. All and all, the dangers of organized religion are under-appreciated. That said, its rituals and ethical foundations can play an important and beneficial role in the world. And some of the most admirable, authentic people I’ve known I’ve met through the church (although, admittedly, some of the most deceitful, fraudulent, and despicable people I’ve met have been regular church-goers).

What’s unexplainable in life?

Most things. Of the many, two stand out in my life: 1) a vision in my 40s (very different from a dream) and 2) a born-again experience in my early 50s (bearing absolutely no resemblance to what evangelical Christians think of as being “born again”).

What do I hope to understand better?

My own mind.

What do I hope to control better?

My own thoughts.

What is the most destructive force on earth?

Fear.

What do I fear?

Too numerous to list. Someday I hope to fear nothing. My fears today are fewer and less powerful than they used to be. But I still am fearful of too many things. Courage is harder to muster than one would think.

What are the two most important words ever spoken?

“Fear not.” – Jesus

What are the three most important words ever spoken?

“Love one another.” – Jesus

Am I optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Neither. Moreover, my views of the future are of no import, either to me or to anyone else. I have no idea what the future holds, nor do I need to. My focus is on today. I looked forward to getting up this morning. And I expect to have the same excitement tomorrow morning.

Whom do I admire?

People who risk or sacrifice something to help others. And people who are authentic and don’t pretend to be somebody they aren’t. People who do their best. People who are honest (with others and themselves).

What traits serve people well?

Curiosity, open-mindedness, and courage.

What’s most important in life?

Inner peace.

What do I want to be remembered for?

I’ll be dead. Such questions don’t interest me. They seem silly and narcissistic.

 

 

What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

Easter Lessons from Our Christian President

The president claims to be a Christian. And a Presbyterian. What are the lessons in all of this?

  1. Labels are meaningless.
  2. It’s easy to fool people.
  3. It’s impossible to convince people they’ve been fooled.
  4. People often don’t believe what they say they believe.
  5. Nastiness pays. Depending on what your objective is.

And for a brief walk down memory lane. Here’s Mr. Trump’s 2015 Easter tweet from Palm Beach:

Jesus’ sentiment exactly. At least for some people.

Where Would We Be Without Hell?

I love this headline: Pope Francis reportedly denies the existence of hell. Vatican panics.

It made me think: Where would the world be without a hell?

I’m not sure. It’s hard to imagine. I doubt we’d kill each other in greater numbers. Or commit more atrocities. We do a bang-up job of that even while professing belief in the existence of a hell.

In fact, I doubt the world would be any different. But perhaps I’m wrong. There’s no way to be sure.

Of course, priests and other clergy would have to alter their message. Well, at least the ones who aren’t in the pope’s camp, of which there are many.

And, of course, there would be some disappointment among the people who are counting on a hell. Not for themselves. But for the people who deserve to be sent there. I can think of some people who have earned that right. I bet you have your list, too.

A word of caution though: there’s no way of knowing what the cutoff is, so it’s risky business cheering for hell. We might be surprised and fail to make the cut ourselves.

 

Rethinking Hypocrisy

My earliest recollection of hypocrisy was in church. It was there I sat and listened to the pious prayers of my father. The distinction between the man who spoke those words and the man I knew as my father was striking in the mind of his son. The son never felt loved by this man. The son experienced the coldness, the harshness, the anger. It was not all bad, of course; there were good times. But it was nothing like the love and compassion preached in the church; spoken of in the prayers. I learned what hypocrisy felt like. And I didn’t like it, not one bit.

As I matured, I realized that hypocrisy had found a home among most if not all churchgoers. They claimed to believe one thing and then lived their lives as if they believed something else. There was so much pretending.

Along the way, I realized I, too, was a hypocrite. I always fell short of the values and principles I espoused. Walking the talk was so damn hard.

And so I was hard on myself. And on others. And found I longed for authenticity, both in myself and others. I think I even desired it more than goodness.

At the same time, I recognized that authenticity could be costly. I came to realize the strong incentives for hypocrisy in the world. And came to understand just how much incentives matter. It made me less judgmental, but I still loathed hypocrisy. I saw no redeeming virtue in it. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe how naive I was.

In time, I came to accept that hypocrisy was part of our nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.” Every man. Perhaps it’s no one’s fault.

Something I read recently, authored by Paul Craig Roberts, caused me to question further whether I had been too hard on hypocrisy — on myself and others. Mr. Roberts wrote:

There is a vast difference between proclaiming moral principles that one might fail to live up to and proclaiming immoral principles that are all too easy to keep.

We live in an era in which the proclamation of immoral principles is commonplace. Indeed, we even elected an immoral man to be our president. I’ve tried to find some redeeming virtue in the man. But I can’t.

But it’s not only him. It’s everywhere around us. In the corporate world, immorality thrives under cover of the principle of shareholder value, which supposedly cleanses all unclean deeds. But you find it in the nonprofit world, too. And among nations. And among religious folk. Especially religious folk.

President Trump makes my dad look really good. Yes, my father was a hypocrite. Probably no worse than me or most others, but a hypocrite nonetheless.

However, he was a man who proclaimed moral principles. And who lived up to most of them, most of the time. He didn’t love me well, but he taught me well. And probably did the best he could do.

I could have done worse. Much worse. I could have been reared by people who proclaimed immoral principles. By people whose sins dwarfed the sin of hypocrisy.

I was fortunate.

I used to think there weren’t many things worse than hypocrisy. I suppose it’s just one of many things I thought I knew that proved to be untrue.