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.

The Day the Heart of God Was Revealed

This is what follows Christmas. According to the Gospel story, Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus. He thought Jesus would be a threat to the empire — to the systems of power that underpinned the privilege and wealth of the few. So Herod ordered all newborn male babies to be slain. And the blood of the innocents flowed.

To avoid Herod’s threat, Joseph and Mary fled with the child to Egypt. It was the day Jesus became a refugee. (Interestingly, if they had tried to seek refuge in the U.S. today, they would have been turned away.)

But it’s more than a story about a refugee. Far more. At least to anyone who believes in a god — more specifically, in a god whose nature and purpose were revealed in the being and life of Jesus.

To such people, Jesus the refugee reveals much. He reveals the very heart of God. Continue reading