Is This What Great Looks Like?

The CDC reported this past week that life expectancy for Americans dropped last year. The U.S. stands out in this regard: no other developed country is experiencing higher mortality rates. Indeed, the gap in life expectancies between Japan, Spain, and many other countries and the United States is growing, which, obviously, is a very bad development for the U.S., both from a societal and economic standpoint.

Last year, 70,237 deaths were attributed to drug overdoses in the U.S. West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania had the three highest age-adjusted rates of fatal overdoses. Most drug overdoses are unintentional. But not all.

Suicides overall were up by 3.7 percent in 2017. Since 1999, the national suicide rate has increased by 33 percent! A particularly disturbing trend is the increase in suicides among teenagers and young adults. And among farmers. The country’s most rural counties had suicide rates almost twice as high as those for the most urban counties.

These are not signs of a healthy society; rather, they are signs of social decay.

You’d think this would spur some serious national reflection. But it hasn’t. Instead, it has precipitated a mean-spirited reaction whereby the country doubled down on failing policies, values, and priorities. Donald Trump is Exhibit A.

But there are other manifestations of our dysfunction that are equally troubling, including mass murders (our schools have become killing grounds), worker exploitation, widespread underemployment, gross economic inequities (a big part of the problem that is largely ignored and goes unaddressed), lack of social mobility, high debt burdens, broad resentment, alienation and shallow or nonexistent personal networks, widespread insecurity and feelings of compulsion, incredibly high rates of incarceration, and high incidences of psychological problems (e.g., Americans take far more antidepressants than anyone else).

It’s impossible to know how all of this will play out over the long term, Vera. What kind of country will await you when you reach the age of majority? I’m not sure. But it’s quite possible your world will look very different from the one that awaited me when I graduated from high school.

No one can insulate you from the problems of the country. But we can prepare you. By helping you learn and discover. Fostering your curiosity. Helping you to acquire the skills and capabilities to navigate ambiguity and a hostile world. And by not perpetrating illusions or mindlessly supporting many of the deeply flawed ideas and narratives that have been eroding our country’s social and moral fabric. And, perhaps most of all, by loving you unconditionally and providing you with a strong and stable family.

The rest will be up to you. Just as it was with everyone who came before you. And will be with everyone who will follow you.

That’s life.

The good news, you can be great. In the end, that’s what great looks like: Life flourishing within the human body, mind, and soulPeople relishing the gift of life, in peace, joy, and love.

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

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

Turkeys Remind Us

Turkeys sacrifice. Themselves. That’s what they do. For us. Just look around the table today if you don’t believe me.

But it’s not only turkeys. There’s a lot of sacrifice out there. It’s just that most of it goes unnoticed.

You might wonder why people sacrifice. After all, we’re not turkeys. They don’t have a choice. Usually, we do.

I suppose there are several reasons people sacrifice.

Sometimes, it’s for a belief. Some people believe it’s important to live an ethical life. To have integrity. To not do something they believe is wrong. Yet they can’t control what comes their way. And sometimes what comes their way is a demand by more powerful people to do something that conflicts with their beliefs. And sometimes the demand is paired with a threat. Go along or suffer the consequences. Some people decide to stand firm on their principles and not to compromise. Sometimes, this means they have to sacrifice. Sometimes, it even means their death.

Sacrifice also can be rooted in love. Most of us parents would do anything for our spouse, children and grandchildren. We’d even sacrifice our lives if necessary. Parental love is that way. It knows no bounds.

Kids (myself included) tend to overlook or minimize this sacrifice. We tend to focus on what our parents did wrong. Or how they messed us up. Or their flaws. We fail to see the sacrifice. Or we don’t think it makes up for the wrong. Perhaps it doesn’t. But it’s still part of the equation. It can’t be written out of the book of history. Sometimes we acknowledge the sacrifice at their funeral. Sometimes we never do.

Today is a day we set aside to give thanks. To express gratitude. To count our blessings.

For starters, I’d like to thank the turkey. The ultimate sacrifice is unlike any other. It’s a big deal, even if you don’t have a say in the matter.

If you do have a choice, it’s an even bigger deal.

To my parents and grandparents (most of whom are gone), thank you. I get it. I’m a parent, too. I know what you’ve given. And what you were willing to give. Wow. Just wow.

To my wife and best friend (they’re the same person), gratitude doesn’t begin to capture what I feel. If you needed a heart, I’d give you mine. And be glad I could.

To my sons and you, Vera, my only grandchild, and your mother, the wife of our son, each of you is a blessing beyond measure. I’ve made mistakes. And probably will make more. But never doubt I would be willing to be the turkey if necessary.

To all our ancestors and contemporaries who worked so hard and gave of so much to make the world a better place, thank you. Your sacrifices may have gone unnoticed, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest.

If there is a spirit out there who cares, and loves us, thank you to you as well. Thank you for allowing us to experience the joy and blessing of sacrifice.

To care enough to find joy and blessing in sacrifice is indeed a gift. The source of this gift is a mystery. Yet it’s existence isn’t. It’s real. And precious.

The turkey will never experience it. But we can.

Happy Thanksgiving!