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There are those who live their lives with no moral struggles. To them, nothing is right or wrong. Things are simply desirable, or they aren’t. Self interest makes the choices. The laws of man or God may get in the way, but only as barriers to get around.
Most of us aren’t able to live that way. Most of us have a nagging conscience raising questions of right and wrong. This can be a burden or a blessing . . . depending. Most of us struggle to develop our standards of right and wrong, and struggle even more to follow them.
I was reminded of this at a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. A wonderfully clean and healthy place. A great place to live if you’re a cow or calf or human child. A place where Amish buggies come driving in to buy milk and eggs, delivering children to enjoy ice cream and animals.
The folks who run this farm work hard, love one another, live modestly, help their neighbors, study their Bibles, and go to church on Sundays. And like most of us, they consider the rightness or wrongness of their words and deeds. So as I read the polite request bullet-pointed in a list on the wall, I smiled but did not scorn it. It said:
To many, such a sign will seem quaint and belonging to an earlier time. When I first read it, I had that reaction. But then, the very next day, I read about the funeral of Aretha Franklin in Detroit. There was much discussion of the mini-skirt worn by one of the singers, and whether it was appropriate for a funeral or not. Many considered it “immodest attire.” And former president Bill Clinton was accused of gazing at the singer in an inappropriate manner by a Fox News panel. They called it “leering.” So the sign I read in rural Pennsylvania is more current than it appeared.
I grew up in a small town in east Tennessee. Most people were either Baptists, Methodists, or Presbyterians. Most went to church on Sunday. Local ministers took turns preaching in our schools. Revival meetings were common, and you could listen to preachers preaching on the radio almost non-stop. They preached against a variety of sins including drinking and dancing and women wearing shorts. Kids were forbidden to play sports on Sunday afternoons because it was “the Lord’s Day.” On the campus of my own “Christian college,” couples were forbidden from holding hands while walking together. I can say this for sure because I was once caught doing it.
In my lifetime, norms have gone from this to now having a President whose third wife used to pose for nude photographs, who has spoken on television of grabbing women by the genitals, and who has paid hush money to silence women about alleged affairs. We now have explicit photos and video free-for-all on the Internet, explicit how-to articles on sex available in women’s magazines at grocery checkout counters, and all sorts of revealing dress and language on television and in public places. One cannot but admire the fortitude of religious communities that have maintained their norms against such times.
But it all seems so arbitrary, so relative, so ambiguous. How short must shorts be to qualify as “short shorts?” How low must a neckline dip down to be an “inappropriate low neckline?” I can hear teenage girls asking these questions, and mothers having a hard time explaining. Then there are the other religions that insist on covering their women from head to toe, even the eyes. For them this is necessary to “maintain pure thoughts and actions.” For them, the Amish country norms are far too liberal.
Just where did the conscience of human beings come from? The religions think God gave us our conscience, all built in and set up. But if this were so, how come the definitions of right and wrong vary so greatly? And why do they vary so much from age to age, person to person, and religion to religion? Some people have a taste for broccoli, and others don’t. Are views of right and wrong like that? Are they that variable and individual? Are there things that are universally good or evil, and if so, what are those things?
The religions usually speak of their sacred writings as defining what is right and wrong. For example, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is Moses and his ten commandments, given by God on a mountain and carved into tablets of stone. One of the ten says very simply, “thou shalt not kill.” But what do we make of that? What have Jews and Christians made of it? In its plainest, simplest meaning, it forbids the taking of another life. But over the years many exceptions have been proposed and carried out. These include euthanasia, capital punishment, assisted suicide, killing in self defense, killing under “stand your ground,” targeted killings by remotely operated drones, defensive wars, aggressive wars, and “pre-emptive wars,” a new term which seems a euphemism for wars of aggression.
Think of all the things that have been debated over the years from a moral standpoint: gay marriage, gay sex, premarital sex, breast feeding in public, contraception, masturbation, genital mutilation, pornography, inter-racial marriage, inter-faith marriage, human slavery, capital punishment, racial segregation, abortion, public nudity, private nude beaches, bull fighting, the torture of prisoners, the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, chemical weapons, and, of course, war itself.
Many of these discussions are far away from Amish country around New Holland, Pennsylvania. But it’s all part of the same. We’re all trying to figure out the right and wrong of things in life, and hope it matters.
He had made an appointment to see me at 1:30 to "catch up." When I looked up and saw him walking in, I saw there was an HR person following. Inwardly I said, "Oh Shit!" Verbally I said, "Looks like I'm in trouble."
The SSA office opens at 9:00 a.m. and I arrived right on time so I could get this done promptly. Instead, I found there were 50 people already there and lined up ahead of me. The guard opened the door on schedule, and we were all assigned a number and told to wait for our number to be called. Others kept arriving and all the seating on the hard steel rows of benches was taken and newcomers began standing around the walls. It seemed to take about 5 minutes for a new number to be called. That was not encouraging.
My number did get called a little over 2 hours later. A young man standing behind me said that yesterday he had waited three and a half hours without getting his number called. He had to leave to go to work, and so he was back for a second day.
When I finally got to the window and stated my business, I was given a form that my company needed to fill out and sign. When I returned with the form that afternoon, conditions in the office were about the same. I spent another 2 hours there, with plenty of opportunity to reflect.
For a person used to being around people with good jobs and lives in reasonable order, this experience was a sad one. The many pictures on the walls and on the Social Security literature show healthy, smiling, happy people from all walks of life. But the people waiting in these lines and on these benches were not smiling. Almost all appeared to be among Mitt Romney's 47%. The "takers" as he described them. They were people struggling to make it: elderly, immigrant, sick or disabled, mothers with small children restless or crying, young people needing a social security card to work at low paying jobs. I felt strange in this place, as if I was out of place. And yet this is now my place. I will need to come back here.
A friend who cares for a disabled child wrote me: "It’s a sad state of affairs at SSA and Medicare. I can’t tell you how many times my daughter gets updates on payments, gets payments, and then gets billed for the same amounts–all within a day or two. it’s definitely human error, and I can understand your concern about your info getting entered correctly. Sad indeed."
I found myself thinking that if FedEx or Google or Amazon were running this operation it would be much different. I even ventured that if I was running it, it would be much different. But then I considered that likely the funding for this operation has been cut again and again, and maybe they are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. I do recall that recently the VA administrator was fired for not getting our veterans served properly. But then the politicians turned right around and appropriated large sums of money to hire more doctors and build more hospitals for the VA. This suggests that the agency was under-resourced and under-funded and that the administrator had been made the scapegoat.
Oh well, as long as I get my Medicare, I'll be happy. Or sad.
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It happened again this morning. After swimming my laps, I proceeded to the large jacuzzi beside the slow lanes. There was a woman already in the jacuzzi and she had the Monster Jet. The MJ is my name for what is the strongest hot water blowing jet in any pool in Montgomery County, Maryland. I know this from trying them all, trust me. Put any sore bone or muscle in front of this jet and appreciate the results. All the regular swimmers at this pool know the MJ, as did the woman sitting there. As did I, and also the two men who entered soon after. You watch for your chance to take over the MJ as soon as someone leaves it.
The woman finally did leave it and immediately, simultaneously, I and another man made moves toward it. Our eyes met and each of us hesitated. He was a polite Asian man and middle-aged. He gestured toward the MJ as if to say “you were here first, go ahead and take it.” Instinctively I gestured back, “no, you can have it. I’m leaving soon anyway.”
I could have insisted and taken the MJ, but then I would have felt guilty. I kindly let the other man have it, and then I felt cheated. Guilty or cheated, those were the choices.
But why are these the choices, you ask? I call it the Southern Curse. I was raised in Tennessee by a mother who taught and practiced the traits of kindness, generosity, politeness, patience, humility, and loving consideration for other people. She often quoted the words of Jesus about treating others the way we would want them to treat us. This was known as the Golden Rule. And as if our mothers were not enough, we heard of it often in sermons and Sunday School lessons and even from school teachers who were religious. I think it was recognized that we would never succeed in attaining this ideal completely, but the responsibility of trying to was ingrained.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was the motivating force behind John Brown’s stand against slavery and his eventual martyrdom by hanging in Charles Town, Virginia, in 1859. He reasoned that no person would want to be enslaved and therefore, as followers of Christ, we must not only refuse to enslave others, but must not tolerate a society in which human slavery is condoned and practiced.
We do not have slave ships and slave auctions and plantation-type slavery today, but we do have other forms of it. We have millions of hard working people whose wages leave them in perpetual poverty and economic misery. Their children grow up sick and hungry and with scant hope of escape from this life. And rich business owners love the system because it provides cheap labor in abundance. They even try their best to ban contraceptives and abortions so this population is kept in good supply. This, too, is a slavery system.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I heard about an interesting conversation once, perhaps in or after a Sunday School class. Someone asked if Jesus Christ had been an NFL quarterback, how great would he have been? And there were various suggestions, all in the superlative mode. Until someone expressed the view that if Jesus were a quarterback he would probably figure out a way to let the other team win. And that ended the discussion.
So which is better, to help yourself or to help someone else?
In corporate America, it is all about helping yourself at the expense of others. The incentive is to self-promote and to get ahead of others by any means available, open-handed or under-handed. The rewards are to those who do unto others precisely what they hope will never be done to them, to do it to others before it gets done to them. The system is rigged to reward the ruthless.
If you have five hungry lions together in a cage and someone throws in two large steaks, what will happen? Will two lions will have steak dinner and the rest go hungry? Or will one strong and ill-tempered lion roar and bare its teeth and grab everything for itself? Whatever the outcome, the last thing to expect, the near impossible, is for the lions to share this food equally among them.
Human beings are not bound to behave like wild beasts, although we often do. Human beings are capable of kindness, generosity, politeness, patience, humility, and loving consideration of other people. Of treating others the way we would want to be treated.
This isn’t just a Southern thing, and I should not have called it a curse. Sorry, Mother.
The man walking to his airport gate with a cellphone at his ear is giving final instructions to someone with a tone of importance. Sitting in the splashing jacuzzi does not deter the bathing woman from talking on hers. And even the hotel maid waiting at the bus stop for her ride to work is talking, talking, talking.
How can she afford this? Something has convinced even our lowest wage earners and their children that their phones and talking on them is a necessity of life.
I can remember when placing a call in our small town meant picking up the receiver and waiting for an operator to say “number please.” The phone numbers were three digits and all calls through this operator were local. A long distance call was needed even for another town just a few miles away. For those you needed to ask for a long distance operator. The reception on longer distance calls was often marginal. And because of the costs, long distance calls were considered a luxury and used sparingly. Often they brought bad news: a relative dead or a soldier killed in action. When the phone system was upgraded to rotary dial models that needed no operator, that was high technology. It was also the end of their jobs for a lot of women.
If this sounds like along time ago, it really wasn’t. It was not so long before those days that nothing like a telephone or telegraph existed. Or railroads or automobiles. Or a postal system or newspaper with wide circulation. It is not that far from when the fastest way to spread the word was someone riding on a fast horse or running on foot if they lacked one.
The trend, the ever-accelerating trend, has been toward universal connectedness. People talking with more and more people including those farther and farther away. News arriving from more and more sources, and faster and faster. Information arrives constantly today, as does misinformation. Important information arrives along with the unimportant. The process overwhelms the content and the purpose. The process becomes an addiction.
Do we really need all the information that comes at us constantly? We thumb through a stack of magazines and find nothing at all of use or interest. We flip through a hundred channels on the TV without finding a single one we want to watch. Broadcasters try to entice us with “breaking news,” but we have grown accustomed to the fact that it is neither breaking nor news. Most times it is just the same things repeated over and over.
As a result of our constant communicating, things that would never have been heard about in previous human generations now seem close at hand. A woman raped in India, a famous person arrested somewhere, a few miners trapped, or a shooting in Texas. A clothing factory burned in Bangladesh. A newspaper cartoon deemed offensive and setting off riots far away. Suddenly the business of everyone else in the world has become our business.
There is the potential for great good in this, or for great harm. All of these means of communication are essentially neutral. Digital signals do not discriminate between the voices planning a happy family reunion or those planning a deadly bomb blast. Good news can be spread by our media, but bad news seems to predominate. Spreading the news can mean help is on the way, or death and destruction.
We are made spectators and almost participants in every conflict going on anywhere in the world. Also every tragedy, injustice, uprising, and downfall. Also every notable achievement, scientific advance, and humanitarian success, although these tend to be ignored or underplayed.
A country makes war on another country, and all the other countries feel compelled to take sides. Sometimes they offer assistance and the fight becomes wider.
Unhappy citizens communicate their anger and organize themselves using mass communications. They rise up against their own governments, who respond with deadly force. Then everyone else in the world seems called on to take a side and join in. Poor Obama, who has tried to keep out of the civil war in Syria, and now is getting swept toward it like a stick in a rushing river.
Like it or not, we are all becoming participants in an emerging global community where someone’s business becomes everyone’s business. Someone’s disease becomes everyone’s disease. Someone’s bad economy becomes everyone’s bad economy.
Like it or not, we are citizens of the world we live in. Any war among us is a civil war.
The office where I spend my days looks out across a restaurant parking lot to a major intersection in the Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C. The restaurant draws people who work in offices like mine, mostly well dressed and prosperous appearing. There are groups of men, groups of women, couples, arranged meetings, and a few singles. I am on the ground floor, so I have a good view of this activity. I also have a good view of the activity just beyond it where Nicholson Lane crosses Rockville Pike. All day long the cars and trucks travel there: slowing, waiting, signaling, turning, sometimes honking. There are usually lines of cars just sitting and waiting their turns. This is why the intersection draws homeless people seeking assistance in the form of cash. Quite often there are several of them, and quite often they are there for most of the day. I have watched them in the cold of winter, the heat of summer, and everything in between.
I was hiking on a lakeshore trail in a nearby state park. Ahead was a small wooden bridge across a stream. Several good steps and you would be across this bridge. But crossing it on this early morning, I noticed something that brought me to a stop. Someone had written something there. I imagined it to be the hand of a young boy. But instead of "fuck you" or "parents suck" it was something strangely different.
"I love you!"
As I walked on, I began pondering this message. It was not addressed to anyone. Usually you would expect a name attached. "I love you, Mary!" Or Jane, or Sally . . . someone with a name.
Was the boy shy? Did he want to leave the message anonymous, so he could point it out to any girl he brought and claim it was to her? Or could his love have been for another boy, and no girl at all? Or was this message more of a wish than a reality? He felt love, but his love had no name to attach to? Or could he have just been happy on a bright, sunny day and in love with life and with everyone? I kept wondering because there were all these possibilities, and no way to tell for sure about any of them.
However, I vote for the bright, sunny day. A day with an exclamation mark beside it. A day when love was an overwhelming feeling that had to be written down, even on a bridge. A day when it was free and unbounded, including all the world and the entire human race.
I know this sounds like nonsense. I know such writing was not placed by the head of the local chamber of commerce, kneeling down on those boards in his business suit and tie. It is nonsense for sure to him. This is the work of a child, we assume. It must have been a child, we assume. Thus we make it childish and foreign to our practical lives.
Sometimes on televised football games the camera shows a person in the end zone holding a sign saying "John 3:16"–the location of a verse in the Bible. The person wants us to get a Bible and read that verse. He believes it will do us some good. Perhaps it will for, if I recall correctly, this passage begins "God so loved the world . . .." So in this theology it is god-like to love the world, but that is in theory. It seems that the majority of god-fans don't see it that way. Their god loves their particular portion of the world–their country or tribe or religion or ethnic group, or whatever.
Speaking before a fundraiser for his political party, Newt Gingrich recently declared: "I am not a citizen of the world. I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous!" In this view it is every country for itself, and may the best country win. Or it is every race or language group for itself. Or it is every social or religious group for itself. And so we always at war, one against another. So it goes, and so it goes.
Human love, if we have any, tends to narrow down, not broaden out. We love only certain classes, races, political persuasions. We love children and relatives only if they behave themselves and treat us as they should. We certainly would never love an enemy. Our loved ones are the loving ones, meaning those who love us. Thus does love amount to no better than a practical selfishness.
I know the author of the inscription didn't have all of this in mind, but it's what I think about every time I cross his bridge.
Watch out! He is cutting in front of you from the right, from the blind side. From the lane that was marked as ending a long way back. Other cars merged in as instructed, but not him. He is bent on getting ahead. Getting there a car-length earlier means a lot to this guy. There isn't really space for his car in front of you, but he makes space. He makes space because you chicken out and hit the brake as he swerves. He is more aggressive than you which is why he is now in front of you. He throws a casual wave as if to thank you, to thank you for being a sap. You are mad at him and mad at yourself both. You frown and fume and mutter various characterizations for this man.
My body has accepted its 6-month old hip enough that I have resumed bicycle riding. Last week I rode to work and back two days, and yesterday I went out in rolling Maryland countryside on a glorious spring day for a 19 mile ride. That isn’t a very long ride by my previous standards, but given my recent restrictions it seemed like a hundred. I rode out near the Potomac River that has some tough hills.
Lance Armstrong bristled. He bristled when someone implied that it’s easy for him climb steep mountains on a bicycle. And not just climbing, but climbing fast. Did they believe him when he told about his legs burning and his lungs bursting? He said what about it? It doesn’t get any easier, it just gets faster.