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

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 Sound of Silence

Quite the testimonial that there appears to be a higher degree of moral outrage among corporate CEOs than religious “leaders.”

This is just one of many statements I’ve read the past week about what many see as the transition of moral leadership in America away from religion to corporate leaders.

I’m not so sure I buy it — the second part, that is. I certainly buy the first part: the churches are largely silent. But I question whether it’s moral leadership that’s coming from corporate America. Rather, I suspect it’s calculated HR strategy by and large.

There are exceptions, of course — instances where a few corporate leaders are primary voices of morality. But they’re the rare exception.

The churches, on the other hand, are either relatively silent, at least beyond their hallowed walls or, worse yet, voices that stand in opposition to justice. Indeed, the evangelical wing of the Christian Protestant tradition doesn’t even pretend. It’s been nearly entirely co-opted by secular ideology and has become more Right than Gospel.

They don’t concede that of course. But it’s obvious, at least to anyone with a modicum of objectivity left in their bones.

As for the remainder of the religious traditions in America, prophetic voices of justice and compassion are undoubtedly still raised here and there in local congregations and, to some extent, in local communities. But the voices are either too few or too timid to join together in a way that resounds through larger communities or on regional or national stages.

But perhaps things aren’t all that different from what they’ve always been. I recall in the ’60s that most religious folk were status quo kind of people. The ones who stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. were relatively few in number. In that era, the kids and relatively few allies of Dr. King were the dominant voices of morality.

It’s been over 1,700 years now since Emperor Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and the faith became a legitimate part of the power structure. One could argue that’s when the Christian faith embraced power and privilege over morality and sacrifice. If you ever visit the Vatican, you will understand what I mean.

There have been exceptions along the way of course. Quite notable ones. But exceptions nonetheless.

I’m not sure the situation is all that different among the Jews in our country today. Indeed, some notable people of the Jewish tradition occupy positions of power within our national government. Apparently, the faith doesn’t impede their work or trouble them enough to break their silence.

Muslims understandably are loath to speak out in our society. Our government bans many from even traveling here, and our leader constantly fuels fear and hatred that intimidates. That’s not an excuse; it’s just the way it is.

One thing has been clear for me for a very long time: given the choice of following Caesar or some other patriarch who relies on instruments of war and death, or a poor, seemingly weak teacher/preacher or tradition that inhibits the acquisition of wealth and power, the kind of person our president would  call a “loser,” the vast majority of people choose the former, even if they pretend not to. And who can blame them?

That doesn’t mean the voice of morality is silent, of course. Indeed, courageous compassion and moral people — both religious and secular — can be found in any era. Yet sometimes their voices are few in number and hard to hear.

I speak not out of a sense of condemnation for I am no better than anyone else. And I fall well short of the example of many.

The point isn’t that people are bad or complicit (although perhaps some are). Rather, the point is this thing we call morality, justice and compassion is no easy thing at all.

Risking everything — indeed, risking anything — for the sake of a stranger requires compassion and courage beyond the capacity of most of us.

At certain points in history, someone rises from our midst to provide moral leadership — a person with extraordinary abilities and courage. But most of the time, there is no such person. Most of the time, we’re left to our own devices.

It’s folly to think that moral leadership will hail from the halls of corporate America. The dominant culture of business in America surrounds money. Some founders and leaders of business have broader concerns of course. Some promote equality and justice. To an extent. But these causes will never supersede their primary mission in any large-scale way. Their shareholders would replace them first.

Which leaves us with churches and congregations and people of faith traditions. And with individuals. It leaves us pretty much in the same position we’ve always been in.

It’s not a cause for despair or reason for elation in my opinion. It’s just the way it is.

Being an agent of justice in a world that pursues power and wealth — in a world that is governed more by the laws of the jungle than the laws of justice — is not an easy thing to be, Vera. In fact, it’s so hard and can be so costly that I wouldn’t push it on anyone. In any case, I suppose it’s not something that can be pushed on anyone. For it to be true and effective, it must come from within. It must come from a heart that is different from the norm.

People will argue whether there is an external force or power that produces such hearts, or whether they’re merely a product of happenstance. You can decide for yourself when the time is right.

In the meantime, I must focus on myself and my own actions and be less concerned with the words and actions of others. For my entire life I have tried to heed the voices of both accumulation and morality. It has almost torn me apart at times.

You notice I didn’t suggest the choice was between morality and immorality. That would suggest the wrong thing as we have defined immorality more narrowly and salaciously in our culture.

I also think concepts of morality are a bit misleading. In my way of thinking, it’s more an issue of compassion.

Compassion is much easier to exhibit in private or in small groups of like-minded people. On a grander scale, in the public forum, it’s a much different matter, for there it confronts other forces, ones that are weaponized and punitive.

Sometimes, the sound of silence can be deafening.

Who Are These Men of God?

“I hope we all agree that Pat Robertson is a man of God.”

This was the response of a friend of a friend in a recent Facebook posting. She was defending Mr. Robertson, who was quoted as saying:

I think, somehow, the Lord’s plan is being put in place for America and these people are not only revolting against Trump, they’re revolting against what God’s plan is for America. These other people have been trying to destroy America.

I can’t help but wonder:

  • What qualifies someone as a “man of God”?
  • What qualifies someone to make a judgment that another person is a “man of God”?
  • How can Mr. Robertson know what God’s plan is for America (or if there is a plan for that matter)?
  • What is behind the decisions of some people to demonize those who hold different political views?

Continue reading