What We Do in Private: the Story of a Good Man

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

By that standard none of us receive a perfect score. Worse still, we live in a historical moment in which the highest officials in our country don’t even pass the daily public tests. But this story is about someone who did pass. Hearing about him might allow the rest of us to take heart that virtue is still found in quiet places, where a person is willing to give up something great for something good. Where no audience will ever know.

The tale came from an unremarkable man. He was in his late 40s, a guy who blended into the crowd and had a pretty dreadful middle-management job. Not an assertive fellow. His wife had hen-pecked him into submission, inheriting the role passed to her by his parents. You could almost see the peck-marks, the little dents on his flesh. I once asked him about his sex-life and he laughed while rolling his eyes in a way that revealed he hadn’t had sex in a decade or more. If you knew about the less-than-satisfying marriage, you might have told him to “man up.”

Let’s call him T.

T was a religious person, a bloke who took his faith seriously, even if he relied too much on Jesus’s message, “the meek … shall inherit the earth.” Still, he was bright, companionable, and funny. He considered himself Republican in the old style sense of fiscal and religious conservatism, but had friends among Democrats. One other notable quality possessed by T: he knew more obscure baseball statistics than anyone I knew or know.

If you believe a good man is hard to find, he might be your guy. Or not. Too easy, too timid, too unmade and overmatched by some of the challenges of life. Like many in my generation, the Great Depression through which his parents lived left their only son with a tendency toward economy. Not rich, T drove a high-mileage, well-kept car, up in its years. He did much of the maintenance himself. A polyester kind of soul, but not without talent.

T occasionally employed a local handyman to do odd jobs around his home and another property he inherited when his folks died. The worker was a casual acquaintance, not one invited for dinner or coffee. Not even a person T talked baseball with. Just someone T knew and called if work presented itself. By T’s observation, the fellow wasn’t the best jobber, but good enough and available enough and needed the work. In other words, no one special.

Our hero heard the man was in the midst of economic difficulties. I could tell you T was always selfless, but I don’t think so. Yet, on this occasion, he did something pretty remarkable. He counted out $714 (baseball fans will recognize the number*) in fifties and twenties, a ten and four singles; enveloped the bills, walked over to the handyman’s place on a day he was out being handy, and put the money-laden wrapper in the mail box. No message, no name, no return address. He did not want to embarrass the tradesman or make an offer that might be rejected. T needed no thanks or congratulations or celebration of his good deed. He did not expect to know what happened to the cash. Helping another was the end of the story for him. I found out only in passing because I was his therapist. I’m sure T told no one else, including his wife.

We live in a time when every act of greed or self-interest can be rationalized. Where too many “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” to quote Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. The yellow-fellow on top doesn’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” Or Muhammad or Moses or the Buddha or any other prophet or deity or role-model than the god he makes of himself and his wallet. No, he is not the creature you hoped your sister would marry, your daughter would date.

We Americans are said to be a charitable people, but charity too often applies only to those of our religion, our party, our tribe. Virtue signaling – trumpeting our piety or generosity – masks the misdeeds we do elsewhere. I guess it has always been so.

Research tells us people tend to look at some others as objects, the homeless for example. We hide ourselves in social fortresses of like-minded contacts who hate the people we hate (if we still consider them human) and praise the folks we like. No new thoughts are permitted, no doubts allowed, and “virtue” takes the form of rage and self-congratulations.

But when I begin to despair of the human condition, I turn my remembered gaze upon T: the most average of men, the most extraordinary of men.

He and others I can name offer me hope. He is not perfect and he would not tell you he did anything special. Just what any good person would do.

Thanks, T.

You gave me something, too.

Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The sheet music cover photo of a once popular song dates from 1918.

*The number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career.

Halloween and the Road to Temptation

Seen Around Lincoln Center - Day 2 - Spring 2012 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

I was recently asked about the craziest thing I ever did. My answer? “Therapists aren’t known for being crazy.” Truth is, I couldn’t come up with much, but will acknowledge near-craziness a few times.

You might not think Halloween would provide the opportunity. Perhaps, then, you never went “trick-or-treating” for UNICEF. I did with my buddy Steve Henikoff in seventh grade, age 12.

The adventure began with an earnest and philanthropic gesture. Or only an excuse to go out on Halloween without the embarrassment of being too old for costumes. We heard about the possibility of a higher Halloween calling than accumulating piles of candy and looking like original sin.

UNICEF is the United Nations Children’s Fund, originally created as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund in 1946 to offer urgently needed healthcare and food to kids in countries turned inside out in World War II. An estimable enterprise still today.

Well, we wanted to do something fun. Noble, too? As noble as lower middle-class 12-year-old boys were capable of at the time. We sent away for the proper identifying materials and began a house-to-house pilgrimage as civilians. Never having done this before, we didn’t predict what kind of response might come from the adults who answered the door with candy in their hands. Well, except for “Get off my lawn!” old guys.

The UNICEF Halloween campaign started quietly in 1950, and was unknown to lots of the folks we met. Some people didn’t believe our explanation and challenged our honesty, despite our fresh-faced innocence. Others gave us coins. So it went, for as many hours as we stayed out. I remember the weather being a bit damp, but we didn’t quit because of rain or cold. My dad worked for the U.S. Post Office, so I knew what it meant to make the appointed rounds regardless of conditions.

Our charitable haul for the evening came to about $12. By today’s valuation we had 100 greenbacks. Think of giving two 12-year-olds with empty pockets $100. My younger brothers Ed and Jack were getting 10-cents for putting a just-ejected tooth under the pillow at night in those days. Thanks to the decades old ravages of the Great Depression on my folks, money remained a hard, heavy matter for them, much like the change we carried.

Temptation, friends, on a day devoted to child’s play, had paid me and Steve a visit.

These two young boys, cloistered in a safe neighborhood, watched over by decent parents, found themselves at a crossroads of sorts.

No one would know if we kept the money or held-back a high percentage and gave a small amount to UNICEF. In a certain sense, no one cared. The only consequence would be internal. What might we think of ourselves?

No one lives a temptation-free life. Money is an ever-present lure for some people, even those who have plenty. Lying comes in handy, as TV dramas demonstrate along with the shameless, fallen state of professional and governmental ethics. Sex? What can I say? The more illicit, the more inviting. But Steve and I didn’t grasp our adult future. Life was real, not abstract, we weren’t old enough to get sexy with anyone, and the coins were speaking to us.

The two buddies conversed briefly. Very briefly. It wasn’t in our DNA to do anything but what we did. In a certain sense, there was no choice. We were just being ourselves.

The dimes and quarters and nickels – every cent – went to UNICEF and those needy kids.

In another life what might have happened? What if I had 100 lives? I can’t say I wouldn’t visit so-called iniquity more often in at least one of them, just for the joy ride, the pitch-black thrill. We don’t get the chance, do we, unless reincarnation is real? Then, we are told, the wages of becoming your evil twin aren’t pleasant.

We usually keep our dark side in the shade, not acknowledging how much we’ve already lived there, making our self-image more virtuous than we deserve.

You say you don’t?

Then you are tormented.

But, imagine a slightly older version of yours truly on that ancient Halloween night and a same-aged Heidi Klum as my trick-or-treat date, encouraging me to keep the money and holding me tight. Ah, the flesh is weak.

Would Heidi then, like Socrates, have been accused of “corrupting the youth” of Talman Avenue, West Rogers Park, Chicago? Socrates faced a jury of a few hundred Athenian citizens, all men. Acquittal before such an audience would have been the only possible verdict for the “trick or treat” hottie. As for me, so long as Heidi was nearby, I’d have been – shall we say – preoccupied; categorizing the theft as an anomaly, rationalizing as needed. We do it all the time, the better to live with ourselves.

Hey, I was a young teenage male. Give me a break. Remember, it didn’t happen.

Temptation can often be avoided – at the risk of overregulating your life. Think USA VP Mike Pence, who won’t go to dinner with a woman unless his wife is beside him with a gun trained on his privates, thus simultaneously guaranteeing his fidelity and supporting the National Rifle Association.

Others resist if they can. Resisting temptation is a bit like trying to stand straight-up and recite the Boy Scout Oath at the top of a perfect toboggan run on a cold winter’s day with the wind at your back. You are – whether you realize it or not – about to slide a long, slippery, perhaps injurious distance.

Life is probably more fun and more fraught if you don’t avoid or resist all the time and don’t think too much about who you are. When is creative risk-taking the road to a bad end? When is the straight-and-narrow the slow lane to a muted life?

If one evaluates one’s choices, much depends on when we take the measure: at the point the gambler wins his pot of gold or after he loses big-time? In youth, middle-age, or the end-of-the-line?

Still, when the tolling bell reminds us to change our lives, I don’t think it is encouraging a future in bank robbery.

I guess I was lucky never to meet Heidi Klum as a teen, who was born after Steve and I labored our single night for UNICEF.

Or, maybe, the luck would have been in meeting her.

There is always someone or something, in the domain where you are most vulnerable, that can make you want to do something crazy and enticing: becoming other than your usual self. A kind of moral Achilles heel or an invitation to freedom, depending on how you imagine it and the elasticity of your virtue.

Wanting and doing, however, are different things.

If imagination were action, we’d all be in jail.

The top two images come from UNICEF. Heidi Klum, pictured in the first one, was the 2011 Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF Ambassador.

So You Say You Want to Know Yourself? Thoughts on Examining Your Life

256px-La_Fontaine_de_Jouvence_Paul_Gervais_m

Our choices tell us who we are. In hypothetical situations it is easy to be heroic or generous, but no one can be sure what he would do until tested in real life. Since we prefer to believe the best of ourselves, if faced with a genuinely costly decision we might act differently than we think. You already know your history in life choices familiar to most of us: electing more time at work or at home, determining what to spend your money on, choosing a life partner, etc. What of those you haven’t experienced?

With all that in mind, I offer you several imaginary scenarios designed to reveal your values. You might find out something new about yourself if you take any of them seriously. After all, the words “know thyself” were inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo. I’d be grateful if you comment and share your thoughts as you consider the outlined scenes, even if you mention only one. I suggest you consider just one at a time. In a future post, I’ll give you my own ideas about the dilemmas listed below:

  1. Someone asks you for a year off your life — a transfer of 365 days from you to him in return for money. Would you accept? How much money seems sufficient? The old Twilight Zone TV series presented an interesting story involving such an offer: The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross.
  2. If you could trade one extra year of good health and youth for one less year of longevity, would you make the exchange?
  3. What would you die for?
  4. What would you kill for?
  5. Imagine you are given the opportunity to improve your physical beauty by 25% or your intelligence by a similar percentage. One or the other, just by saying so. Please discuss your decision and justify it.
  6. You are offered the chance to live one day over again. A “do-over.” Which 24-hours would you choose, if any? Describe what led you to this determination.
  7. A genie will give you the ability to relive one day of your life just as it happened, without change. Which would you choose? Explain.
  8. The gift of immortality on earth is yours — to live forever, never aging beyond your current age. Do you want it? Why or why not?
  9. In your travels you come upon a fountain of youth enabling eternal earthly life at whatever chronological age you choose, with only the knowledge and experience you possessed at that time. To what moment would you return? Might you decide not to drink from the fountain? Tell me more.
  10. Who is the one person living to whom you most owe an apology? Why haven’t you expressed your regret?
  11. Imagine you can live the fantasy of succeeding in everything you try and being continuously satisfied by the progress of your life. It will be experienced as absolutely real, even though you will be in a chair connected to a machine keeping you healthy, supplying you with food, and fooling you into believing you are elsewhere. Alternatively, you can try to make your way in the real world you and I live in, as you do today. Which would you opt for?
  12. You are offered a risk-free, brief surgery permitting you to give yourself ecstatic pleasure by pressing a button whenever you want: the most powerful mood-changer ever invented. The marvelous joy beyond joy lasts only 10 minutes, so if you want more you have to press repeatedly. Do you accept this “gift”? Explain.
  13. You are given a trip in a time machine, enabling you to go back to the moment in history you’d prefer to live in, in whatever place you’d like to live, though you’d remain your current age. The journey is one-way — no coming back. Moreover, you can bring only one other person with you. Would you do so and with whom? To what historical moment and place? Elaborate your deliberation process.

No right or wrong answers here. Have at it!

The painting is The Fountain of Youth, 1908, by Paul Jean Gervais. It comes from Wikimedia Commons.

A Man Who Refused to Judge: Carlo Maria Giulini

41mriZX8V5L._SS500_

This is a story about a musician, but not about music. It is about you and me and especially all the loud voices in today’s world who not only claim to know what is right and what is wrong, but who is right and who is wrong. Most particularly, it is about a great man who had every right to judge someone else, but chose not to. I’m talking about the famous Italian conductor of symphony and opera, Carlo Maria Giulini.

Who was Giulini and what gave him that right? Born in 1914, Carlo Maria Giulini would become the Music Director of La Scala, Milan; Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony (1969-1973) and the Music Director of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1973-1976). But it was much earlier in Rome that he played as an orchestral violist under the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), as well as many other great conductors; and it was Furtwängler who Giulini refused to judge. Not as a musician, but as a man — a man in the middle — between the Nazi state that ruled his homeland and his conscience.

images

Furtwängler remains a controversial figure to this day for choosing to stay in Germany during the Third Reich (1933-1945). His celebrity would have guaranteed him important positions throughout the world. But, while evidence indicates that he did assist some Jewish musicians in the Nazi bullseye, he also allowed himself to be used as a propaganda tool by the government. Never having joined the Nazi party, he was seen as vaguely disloyal by some within Germany, but just another morally compromised German by some outside of it.

Giulini had his own set of moral dilemmas. Although drafted into the Italian Army that was allied with Germany, he and his two brothers, Steno and Alberto, made a pact not to kill:

We would not serve as Mussolini’s (the Italian dictator’s) agent to take anyone’s life, even if it cost us our own. (As a second lieutenant) when my men were fired upon, I had to appear to respond, so I would draw my pistol and fire high above their heads. One of my brothers (Steno) was in Russia with the Italian ski troops. His situation was horrible, with cold and snow and the constant attacks of the Russians, but he never loaded his rifle.

Even this stance proved inadequate to the circumstances that Giulini faced. In Yugoslavia, the Italian Army was confronted with partisan attacks and began to engage in revenge missions against innocent civilians. Before long, after the Allied invasion of Italy, Italy formally switched sides in the war — but not Giulini’s unit, which was ordered to stand with the Nazis in defense of Rome against the advancing U.S. Fifth Army. Giulini defected.

줄리니_cu0625

It was late 1943 and Giulini now found himself a wanted man, his postered name and face to be seen with the direction to “shoot on sight.” For the next nine months Giulini, two comrades, and a Jewish family hid in a tunnel below his uncle’s house in Rome. Newly married, his wife Marcella and Italian resistance fighters provided supplies. It was Marcella who gave him the library copies of orchestral scores that he studied by candlelight and that they hoped he might eventually conduct if he survived.

On June 5, 1944 the Allies succeeded in liberating Rome. Thomas Saler, the author of Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini, whose book is the source of much of the wartime background presented here, describes the scene:

After word reached him that the city had been liberated, Giulini climbed out of his underground hideaway and stepped outside. It was the first time in nine months that he saw the light of day and breathed the fresh air. Overcome with emotion, he walked to a nearby tree and kissed it.

Giulini was owed a four-year-old debt by Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra as a result of having won the right to conduct it in a contest before war intervened. Thus, on July 16, 1944 he led his first ever concert — the concert that celebrated the liberation of Rome.

On March 18, 1978 I had the chance to interview the now legendary maestro. This elegant and charming man, polite and dignified, responded deftly to musical questions at the outset of our time together. That is, until I asked him about his opinion of Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany and the latter’s wartime behavior. He was not prepared for my question. I was not prepared for his response.

Giulini’s demeanor changed. While he was not impolite, I’d touched a nerve. He began by putting me in my place: “You are very young.” I was 31, he was 63. Giulini continued:

It is very, very difficult to judge the position of a man. It is difficult for you in American to understand the problems we had in Europe. It is difficult to put yourself in a position, in a special moment (in history) that is impossible to imagine if you didn’t live in that time. The last thing I should do is express my position on this point. I had my personal political position, I took my position — very precise. I was not a fascist, and at the moment I had to make a strong decision, and also a dangerous decision, I took it. But I am not in a position to do any criticism of another person.

The conversation continued, but it was clear that the subject of Wilhelm Furtwängler was closed. In that instant, I had seen the man who some called “the steel angel,” both because of his ever-present respect for people, including the musicians he conducted, and his backbone. He was every bit of both.

Giulini conducted his final concert with the CSO that evening. He would now be off to Los Angeles to take up the last major post of his career, as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Unfortunately, his wife’s sudden and chronically debilitating illness a few years later ended Giulini’s American career in 1984. He returned to Europe, never again leaving his Milan home except for a few days at a time to guest conduct, so as not to be away from Marcella for extended periods. His formal career ended in 1998 and he died in 2005.

Giulini is said to have been a well-read man, but I don’t know if he knew the Stoic philosophers like Epictetus. It was the philosophy of Epictetus that U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale credited with helping him survive while he was a prisoner in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Over his seven-and-a-half years in enemy hands, Stockdale was tortured 15 times, in solitary confinement for over four years, and in leg irons for two. In other words, another man who, like Giulini, had every right to judge.

James_Bond_Stockdale

In a 1995 lecture to the student body of the Marine Amphibious Warfare School, Stockdale quoted Epictetus:

Where do I look for the good and the evil? Within me, in that which is my own. But for that which is another’s never employ the words “good” or “evil,” or anything of the sort.

“Goods and evils can never be things others do to you, or for you,” Stockdale concluded.

Giulini would have understood.*

*For an entirely different perspective on Furtwängler’s wartime conduct, see this brief video interview of Jascha Horenstein, the great conductorial associate of Furtwängler: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnXn9wwQeXQ

My gratitude to my friends Tom Saler and John Kain, the latter for alerting me to the existence of the Stockdale lecture. The photo of Vice Admiral Stockdale came from the U.S. Defense Visual Information Official Site, as downloaded to Wikimedia Commons by Darz Mol.

“Being There” for Children and Others: On the Elusiveness of a Moral Life

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Freedom_From_Fear.jpg/500px-Freedom_From_Fear.jpg

Important life choices don’t always announce themselves.

No brass band stands at-the-ready, playing a fanfare to let you know that you are about to do something right or wrong.

That is, perhaps, why most of us believe we are “good people” regardless of the evidence. After Auschwitz, it’s pretty easy for us to rationalize or minimize our participation in anything less awful than that.

We rarely lose the best of ourselves in a moment of operatic drama, but in the thousands of little things that go unmarked and unnoticed in the course of every day.

Morality and decency are worn away an inch at a time; and gained in just the same painstaking way.

Let me tell you about a good man.

The father of a little girl.

He is divorced and cherishes every moment with his daughter. But, his work is demanding, sometimes requires travel, and he has significant payments to his ex-wife specified by his divorce settlement; so money must be made.

A business trip had been scheduled for some time, but two days before it he was told that his child would be one of the kids receiving some special attention at a grade school evening event; one of many such events that a parent is asked to attend, whether it be a band concert, an orchestra performance, a play, or a small honor of some kind.

A few are terrific and wonderful, but most are a matter of “being there,” despite what often amounts to the dreadful boredom of  50 squeaky violins and the butt-breaking, back-breaking pain of hard-wood gym risers as you listen and watch, already exhausted from your day at work.

This man does everything he can to support his little girl. And, mindful that his “ex” is more than a little self-involved, he tries to make up for what she cannot or does not know to give.

Still, money must be made.

As he sat alone in his hotel room on the trip’s first night, he realized — perhaps a bit late — that he was in the wrong place.

That his clients could wait.

That his daughter was more important.

That it mattered more to be with her than away from her.

He reorganized everything, cancelled meetings for the next two days, and changed his flight plans.

It cost him money and time.

A happy ending?

Not exactly.

The next day’s weather was bad, he spent hours in the airport, and he didn’t get back into his home town until just after his daughter’s event occurred.

It was frustrating, but he was able to take her out for an ice cream cone and a small celebration of her recognition when the assembly ended.

No proclamation came his way, certainly no acknowledgement from his divorced partner, and probably not even an indelible memory for his child, since our protagonist didn’t mention what he had to do in order to try to attend.

Of course, money does have to be made.

And, martyring yourself for your child’s welfare isn’t healthy either.

Life is like the work of a seamstress: the fabric we stitch of small moments, rarely acknowledged, soon forgotten, but leaving a pattern behind.

Things like whether we hold a door open for someone else, give the homeless person some change, use the word “we” instead of “I,” and the like.

Things like hand-writing a “thank you,” bending down to pick up someone’s fallen package, or giving up a seat on the subway to a senior citizen.

Things like being there for your children, your friends, and even those tourists who look confused.

In 2002, on a street corner in a moderate-sized German town, my wife, youngest daughter, and I were those people; who were aided by a man driving in his car who could see our perplexity, spontaneously parked the vehicle, and walked up and down a couple of blocks over a period of 20 minutes to help us locate a very hard-to-find address.

If it doesn’t cost you something it might be just a little too easy.

The “Three Stooges” used to say, “one for all, all for one, and every man for himself!”

Let’s hope not.

Today is another day. Lots of chances to live by the Golden Rule.

Twenty-four hours of opportunities to put your humanity and integrity over your convenience and advantage.

Will you see those chances? Will you rationalize those opportunities away? Will you be a better person at the end of the day than when the day begins?

No revelations, just the thousands of tiny events that make up a life.

Make a life worth living, not just a living.

The above poster was issued by the United States Government Printing Office during World War II. The image is called Freedom From Fear and originally appeared in the March 13, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The painter is Normal Rockwell. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The oil painting is one of four that Rockwell based on the “four freedoms” mentioned by President Franklin Roosevelt in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union Address: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The posters that used Rockwell’s images were intended to remind the country of what it was fighting for in the war against the Axis powers. The same four freedoms were to become part of the charter for the United Nations.

My Dad is Bigger Than Your Dad! Contemporary Politics and the Moral Superiority of Six-Year-Olds

Lincoln-Douglas Debate

Bluster. Bullies. Big Mouths. Fulminating, furious, fanatics. The world of politics and political attack ads is a lot like the playground.

Lots of assertions, name calling, and one-sided arguments intended to support my candidate’s moral superiority over yours:

Party A: “So-and-so never met a tax or a spending proposal he didn’t like. Who would you rather trust with your money, you or a government with guys like him in it? And he is an ex-trial lawyer and a tree-hugger!”

Party B: “He only cares about rich people. He wants to cap your Social Security and increase your age of eligibility to receive it. He’s a global warming denier who is in bed with the insurance companies and the gun lobby, too!”

Party T: “So-and-so is a communist, a Muslim, a socialist. Where was he born, really? He isn’t a U.S. citizen! The son-of-a-gun just wants to control your health care and dismantle the Constitution!”

And then there is the worst indictment of all: “He is a career politician!!!!!”

Yes, dear, the world of work would be better served by the amateurs, rather than a career surgeon, a career therapist, or career auto mechanic. The next time I go to a concert, I’d like to pay to hear a singer who only performs in her spare time for friends.

I recently had a conversation with a very intelligent man who believes that we would be better off if every one of the current incumbents is thrown out of office, to be replaced by whomever. “It couldn’t be worse,” he said, “regardless of who replaces them.”

Well, actually, it could. How about the Third Reich, Hitler’s Nazi state? Or Cold War Communism under Stalin? Millions and Millions of the enemies-of-the-state being murdered by each of these leaders. Or perhaps life in genocidal Darfur today?

Or maybe you would prefer to live in the 1930s, our own Great Depression, with 25% of the population unemployed, no Social Security or Medicare or Unemployment Insurance, the down-and-outers coming to your back door for food, and another 25% of the population under-employed? Even in 1937, eight years after the Stock Market Crash, President Roosevelt could describe “one-third of a nation” as “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

Of course, it is not that things today are terrific or that our legislators are doing such a bang-up job; and there are some really bad guys on the ballot.

But, “throw the scoundrels out,” is not much of a political agenda. Anger is a self-justifying emotion, without a plan for governance by itself.

“Let’s cut government spending and lower taxes,” doesn’t tell you which programs will be cut, or how to pay for our collapsing infrastructure. “I’ll eliminate waste and fraud,” is an old standby promise of political challengers which, however good in principle, rarely seems to be accomplished very well once they are in office themselves.

As the election campaign boils over, many of us begin to resemble little boys:

“My dad is stronger than your dad!”

“Oh yeah? Well, my dad is smarter than your dad!”

We seem to see only perfection in the candidate who resonates with us. We overlook his limitations. And we magnify the defects in the flawed visage of the other guy.

The good news is that the six-year-olds will grow up and many of them will realize that dad isn’t Superman.

The part of us that yearns for someone of absolute moral purity — someone who is smart enough and strong enough to take care of us forever — finally realizes that dad (and mom) probably won’t fill the bill.

The bad news is that many of us just transfer our unquestioning allegiance from parents to candidates, rendering ourselves as naive as we were at age six.

Angels and devils. Bad guys and good guys.

If only the world were always that simple.

 

The above image is Robert Marshall Root’s painting of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate at Charleston, Illinois.

 

Moral Choices

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/80/Choices%2C_choices..._-_geograph.org.uk_-_465212.jpg/500px-Choices%2C_choices..._-_geograph.org.uk_-_465212.jpg

It is easy to judge others, but are not without blind spots in judging ourselves. In the domain of moral choices, this becomes particularly problematic. How many times have you heard or thought to yourself, “If I were he, I would have done that differently.” Or perhaps, “If I were he, I wouldn’t have done what he did.” But how many times have you said to yourself, “If I’m honest, if I were in the same situation, I really don’t know what I would have done.”

I’ve listed below a few such moral dilemmas, some drawn from real life accounts. I hope you will put yourself in each one and ask yourself three questions:

1. What is the right thing to do?

2. Would I do the right thing?

3. Am I absolutely sure what the right thing is?

A. If you have seen the 1957 movie Abandon Ship, you know the moral quandary in which Alec Holmes (Tyrone Power) finds himself. Holmes is second in command of a luxury ocean liner which strikes a mine. He takes charge of a life boat when the captain (Lloyd Nolan) dies from injuries sustained in the explosion. The small vessel is seriously overcrowded (including numerous people who are hanging on from ocean-side), has limited supplies of food and medicine, and is in shark-infested waters with only small amounts of  shark repellent in hand. Those hoping to survive include the young and old of both genders, some of whom have been grievously injured as the ship went down.

Soon they become aware that no SOS was sent, because the explosion destroyed the radio. Concluding that no rescue ship will be looking for them, Holmes determines the infirm and weakest must be ordered off the so that the remaining individuals can have a chance at survival by rowing the very great distance to the nearest land mass, with enough food to sustain them until they reach it. What would you do if you were in charge?

B. This comes from the oral history of a Holocaust survivor as described in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory by Lawrence Langer. Imagine that you are one among many Jews swept up in the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust). You have been separated from your parents. You aren’t certain whether they are alive or dead. In fact, the Nazis have taken a large group of Jews, including your mother, to a place in the forest. They have required these people, at gun point, to dig a long, deep trench. While doing this, the soldiers are joking, smoking, and drinking. Once the trench has been dug to an adequate depth, a handful of the soldiers shoot their machine guns at the diggers along the line of the trench. Some are killed instantly, some dive into the trench to escape the gun fire, and others are wounded to various degrees of severity.

Meanwhile, you are far from this action. Perhaps you heard the gun fire in the distance. But once it is finished, the Nazis assemble a group of Jews to fill in the trench, to cover over their dirty work, quite literally. You are in this group, assigned to this grisly task. The soldiers have their guns on you and your co-workers, reminding you to work quickly or else. Much moaning and screams of pain are heard from this place. And one more thing: From the trench in front of you, a familiar voice is also heard, quite distinctly. It is your mother’s voice. She is telling you that she is not wounded and pleads for your help. What should you do? What would you do?

C. You are Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition to Troy, provoked to war by the abduction of Helen of Troy, the wife of your brother Menelaeus. Before you and your 1000 ships can reach Troy, however, your fleet is stuck in place, stopped by the intercession of a god named Artemis. Time passes. Your supplies of food and water are dissipating. In addition to your family responsibility to defend the honor of your younger brother and help him retrieve his wife, you are aware that Zeus, the most powerful and important of the gods, has demanded that you sail to Troy. A seer is consulted to determine what might be done to appease the god Artemis and enable the fleet to be launched. You are told that you must sacrifice your virgin daughter, who is not far away. What should you do? What would you do?

D. The economy is tough. You have been out of work for some time. You don’t want to lose your home or apartment, and you are afraid that if you can’t find work soon, that might eventually happen. But, you’ve been networking, and it finally pays off. You are offered a job selling AK-47s, assault weapons that fire 600 rounds per minute, whose principal use is to kill people. While you would only be expected to sell these arms to “legitimate” buyers, you are also aware that the AK-47 is one of the world’s most frequently smuggled weapons and the rifles you sell are likely to get into the hands of criminals and drug lords. Should you take the job? What would you do?

E. An elderly aunt dies, one you have not seen in many years. She has named you the sole beneficiary of her estate, a total of $600,000. You are doing well financially, so the money is not a necessity for you, but you can certainly imagine an enormous number of uses for it (including charitable giving), not to mention the fact that it would allow you some peace of mind, knowing that you will be even more financially secure. You also have two siblings and two cousins, none of whom were more or less close to your aunt than you were. You are under no legal obligation to share the money with them, but you wonder whether you should. What would you do?

F. You are politically “pro-life.” You have campaigned for candidates who believe, as you do, in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. You believe that abortion is murder, without qualification. Financially stable, you have donated money to prevent abortion. A young woman approaches you, someone you know, and who knows and respects the aforementioned beliefs. She is pregnant out-of-wedlock. She would like you to adopt her child. She knows that your two children, who you had when you were quite young, are grown, and believes you would be just the right parents for the new life she carries inside of her, in part because of your moral stance against abortion. She is terrified to give up her child to someone she doesn’t know and who might not provide the kind of home that she believes you and your spouse can provide. But the two of you had decided some time ago that you only wanted two children and, in fact, you have been looking forward to any empty nest and to the freedom it would permit you while you are still in your 40s. What should you do? What would you do?

G. The Holocaust again. This time you are a German gentile. You have a spouse and children. You are not wealthy, but you are getting by. You are not sympathetic to Hitler, but well aware of how the Gestapo works, and that anything seen by them as disloyal to Hitler and the Reich would likely cause you to be interrogated, perhaps sent to a concentration camp, or worse. Your family depends on you for their livelihood. A Jew comes to your door after dark. You know him, but only very casually. He asks you to hide him. You have heard rumors about what is happening to the Jews once they are sent away and, in fact, have been told by a witness that they are being murdered. What should you do? What would you do?

I am not here to give you answers to these questions, assuming that I would be able to come up with just one acceptable moral choice; or that I am some sort of moral authority, which I am not. It can be argued that some of these situations do not allow for a “right” action; not all situations in life offer absolute clarity. Life can be complicated, as these examples demonstrate.

To be sure, none of us are as good as we could be, but that does not mean what is good is always apparent. Indeed, in Aeschylus’s telling of Agamemnon’s story, the title character utters the words “(Which) of these things (choices) goes without disaster?” in describing the the conflict between his public responsibilities as leader of his troops, head of his (and his brother’s family), and the demands of the gods Zeus and Artemis versus his private responsibility as the father of young Iphigenia. The heart break is readily apparent in this man’s dilemma of whether to honor all the aforementioned interests except the one closest to his heart in “such sacrifice of (the) innocent blood…(of) the beauty of my house.”

On a daily basis, we can only do our best to lead moral, principled lives. Not just to talk about it, or formally worship a deity on a holy day, or even to donate some money, but to weave those beliefs into the fabric of daily, commonplace interactions, and try not to fool ourselves when we fall short; to minimize the everyday fibs, moral compromises, and inconsiderations; to show kindness, be forthright, go out of our way for others. To do what is right when no one is looking.

On the other hand, if we want to find out if our morality goes the distance, then we have to be tested — confronted with something difficult and costly, if not dangerous, if not horrible in its implications, as in the examples I’ve given you above; and until then, be humble, not knowing exactly what we would do.

Being a “nice person” is easy enough … until the chips are down.

Most of us won’t ever know the answers to the kinds of questions I have posed, that is, what we would do if actually faced with them.

Best not to know, I think.

The photo above called Choices, choices… is the work of Duncan Lilly, originally sourced from geograph.org.uk, sourced for this blog from Wikimedia Commons.