Monday, June 27, 2011

The Tragic Triumph of Self-Interest

Self-interest (noun) 1. regard for one's own interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others.           --Random House Dictionary

Lost in the blizzard of stories last week about Whitey Bulger was a tale of governmental meltdown which shows what can happen when self-interest trumps what is best for the whole community.  Last Friday, Connecticut faced into the reality of laying off 7,500 state workers after unions there rejected a cost saving contract which had been carefully negotiated by Republican Governor Daniel Malloy and passed by his state’s General Assembly.  Malloy had pulled off a seeming political miracle earlier this year: getting givebacks from workers while also enacting the largest one year tax increase in the state’s history. In doing so Malloy avoided a wholesale gutting of governmental services, everything from public colleges and universities, to state police, nursing homes, and health care for the poor and the elderly. 

It was a prudent move: some tax hikes, some program cuts, and a two year salary freeze, with guaranteed future salary increases for unionized state workers.  What Malloy’s budget asked for was fair: equal sacrifice by all and shared responsibility by all.  Self-interest, as in what’s in it for “me”, gave way to a larger interest, that which is best for “we”. As in what is best for everyone, not just one group or one constituency or one demographic. Taxpayers gave a little. Unions gave a little.  Folks compromised for the common good.  Malloy’s was a gusty move and might have been a powerful example to Washington’s current game of chicken around federal budget cuts and raising the federal debt limit. If the Nutmeg State can do it, maybe Uncle Sam can too.  But then the unions said “NO!” and it all fell apart. Pink slips will start going out this week.  Ironically self-interest on the part of a few workers will now result in their fellow union workers getting the boot.  So much for solidarity.

There are times in this life when self-interest makes sense and benefits the many. Capitalism’s lifeblood is self-interest and most of the time such single-minded energy results in amazing benefits like jobs and economic growth and opportunity.  Our society enthusiastically encourages young people to pursue their dreams, their self-interests, the hope being that when an individual triumphs, it also enriches the community.  Think of inventors, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs.  But here’s another truth. Unbridled self-interest, slavish worship at the altar of “me”, finally drags down the whole and is in fact a civic cancer.    A community is no community unless everyone pitches in.

For what is a healthy family other than a group of people putting aside self-interest for the good of the other?  In churches, synagogues and mosques, folks of faith gather together to serve each other and God and the world, not just themselves.  Soldiers certainly put aside self-interest and risk their limbs and lives for a greater good: the nation.  Millions of volunteers give time, money and talent to build up the world.  Ultimately for any human enterprise to thrive, women and men and children must put aside the selfish for the selfless, must think not just of themselves but also of the other too.  As the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King preached, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

When government functions best, it always seeks to strike this balance between the individual and the community, rights and responsibilities, the greater good and the singular good.  At a time when so many shared crises are roiling away--the tepid economy, the wars, the debt, the environment, our children’s future—we need to be able work together again as citizens.  We need to grow up in a way as a nation, to get out of the sandbox of self-interest and out of the blame game and instead begin to do the hard work of compromise and sacrifice.  Of seeking the national interest and the common good, not just self interest.

Founding father Benjamin Franklin put it best.  In the moments before each of the rebellious colony’s representatives signed the Declaration of Independence some 235 years ago this coming July, he warned them, “Gentlemen we must all hang together or surely we will all hang together.” 

On this July 4th , as so much in the United States of America hangs in the balance and continues unresolved, let this be our civic prayer: to seek more than self-interest alone.






Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why choirs both sacred and secular matter!

From "Christian Century Magazine", 6/28/11,  
"Joining voices"
Kent Tritle, an organist who conducts professional and amateur choirs in New York, says that choral music is the art form that attracts the greatest amount of participation in the country. About one in every five or six households has someone who participates in a choir of some sort—which adds up to about 22 million Americans. Tritle attributes the popularity of choral singing to the sense of community that members experience and to the pleasure of making music together. "There's nothing more joyous than seeing the thrill on the faces of new amateur singers . . . when they first take part in that sonority," Tritle says (Wall Street Journal, May 25).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Powerful Book About Strength, Survival and Redemption

How do humans beings find it within themselves and their God and their faith to face the absolute worst and somehow survive, even thrive? How do humans face evil?  Forgive? I just finished listening to an amazing book, "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.  It tells the true story about a tenacious son of Italian immigrants, an Olympian athlete, a decorated WWII vet, and a former POW named Louie Zamperini.  He literally went through hell and came through to the other side.  One of the best reads I've enjoyed in a long time.  Highly recommended. Pick up a copy for a great summer read!   

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Time to take off the training wheels!

“I am still learning.”                --Michelangelo

There is nothing like the first time we do something new in this life, is there?  Remember the first time your rode your bike without training wheels? It was a wobbly affair, maybe even a bit scary and no doubt you fell over a few times and maybe even got scraped up but finally you made it. Your Mom or Dad gave you one final push and a “YOU CAN DO IT!” and you did it!  All because you dared to learn something new.  To try something you’d never done before.  To step out of your comfort zone and take a risk.  To grow and become more than you were just a moment ago, all because you were willing, even eager, to learn.  What do you still need to learn?

For there is learning, as in books and classes and lectures and tests and finally diplomas.  We’ve just come through a graduation season which extolled this classroom model of education and learning: formal, prescribed, with a beginning, middle and end, an outcome which somehow pays off.  In this learning mode, we learn because we have to, or because it is required or expected and that’s good.  But then there is learning, as in a lifelong commitment to and curiosity about this God-given life and all we’ve yet to learn within it. Yet to try.  Yet to do. What do you still need to learn?

Now well into my fiftieth year I faced that question in the days before my birthday last fall, my crossover into this strange new territory called mid-life.  For what scared me then and now even more than the breakdown of my body (odd aches, tenacious wrinkles, hair where?) was a fear of spiritual ossification.  Getting stuck in place now that I was officially “old”.  Not learning anymore.  Consciously and unconsciously settling in and in doing so losing a spark, the rush of learning something new. 

And so facing into this middle age angst, I decided it was time for me to learn how to do something brand new, to accomplish something I had never, ever tried before.  Something which stretched me, pushed me, and even scared me, in my case singing. Not just warbling in the shower when no one could hear me and not merely blasting away in the car to the radio, but belting out a tune right in front of other people, an actual audience.  So I joined a local choir, hung out in the back bass section for awhile testing out my pipes and then one night when the call went out for solos, I raised my hand and said, “I’ll do it!” 

What do you still need to learn?  The gift of being created by our wondrous God is that this God has shaped us with a mind and a heart always able to learn, no matter what our age, no matter what the station or stage in life we find ourselves. Our bodies may creak but our spirits and our ability to learn: these never go away. I think of my seventy-something Mom who can surf the net with the best of them. An eighty-something grandmother parishioner who can out Facebook her teenage grandchildren.  A biking buddy who just this year decided to take on the challenge of riding 200 miles in two days for charity.  What they all share is a passion for perpetual learning, for seeing new things and opportunities in life and then diving right into them, feet first.  As God declares in the Bible, “See, I am about to do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”

And so a month ago on a Sunday afternoon in front of 150 folks at a local arts center, I stepped up to the microphone and then sang, all by myself!  My heart raced.  My limbs shook but I learned how to do it and then I did it. No doubt God has already planted within your heart something new which you still need to learn too.  A craft you’ve always wanted to master.  A subject you’ve always wanted to delve more deeply into.  A personal fear you know it is time to confront and overcome.  A sport you’ve always wished you’d learned.  A musical instrument which beckons you to give it a try.

What do you still need to learn?  It’s time to take off the training wheels and try something new.   
You can do it!



Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A game seven prayer..... (with thanks to Knute Rockne!)

Dear Lord, in the struggle that goes on through life
We ask for a [rink] that is fair,
A chance that is equal with all the strife,
The courage to strive and to dare;
And if we should win, let it be by the code,
With our faith and our honor held high;
And if we should lose, let us stand by the road
And cheer as the winners go by.” 
- Knute Rockne, "To Play Fair in the Game of Life"

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sex, scandals and sin...

Collateral damage (noun) 1. any damage incidental to an activity.          --Random House Dictionary

Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, John Ensign, and Christopher Lee.  I’ve been trying to come up with some kind of fitting name to describe this group of male politicians, who in the past few years have very publically and sensationally crashed and burned, all due to their collective inability to contain their sexual appetites.  Each of these man-boys apparently found the siren song of sexual temptation more alluring than pesky little things like marital vows, or honesty or ethics or even the law.  To recap their exploits (in the order listed above): tweeted pornographic self portraits, carried on affair while wife had cancer and also got mistress pregnant, cheated on spouse during South American soiree, solicited high priced prostitutes, secretly paid off lover with campaign funds and finally, bared soul and chest online. 

So what do you think works for a snappy moniker? The Salacious Six?  The Gang of Goons?  Men without Brains?   The Caveman Collective?  Making a joke of Representative Weiner’s actions in particular seems like so much shooting fish in a barrel.  His BVD photo is a bad dirty joke with a million potential punch lines.

And yet while what these men did is seemingly funny, it is also not so funny, not at all, if we really think about it. For lost in all the sordid details and headlines (which we the public love to hear about) is one truth rarely if ever reported.  The world of hurt and pain and shame and embarrassment and dishonor which always results from such human sin.  The collateral damage: the reality that when humans sin (and we all do, in large and small ways) we often take others down with us and most often these folks are the innocent, the bystander, and the powerless. 

Take John Edwards.  Just four years ago, this ex-Vice Presidential candidate stood on the steps of a flood ravaged home in New Orleans and announced he was running for President, as a champion of the poor and the underdog in our country.  His resume was perfect: good looks and a smart lawyer wife bravely battling cancer.  Former trial attorney sticking up for the exploited. Changed dad because of the death of a child.  Proud father of adult and young children.  But underneath this perfect image we now know was another story, a lie. So even as he sold himself as a paragon of virtue and family values, Edwards carried on an affair with a woman who worked on his campaign. He impregnated her, gained a new child out of wedlock and vociferously denied all the rumors and accusations.  According to a recent indictment, he also allegedly asked his rich donors to bankroll hush money for the mysterious woman and baby.    

He created a train wreck of his own life but worse even, he damaged and hurt all those around him.  He humiliated and hurt his wife and kids.  He betrayed millions of his supporters.  I was one.  He denied the high calling of his profession.  He exploited a young woman in his employ. He manipulated his donors.  He made a mockery of Presidential politics.  Such a huge trail of human destruction all for one sin and one impulsive choice: to commit adultery and then to lie to cover it all up.   

The lesson is important to remember, whether it is about Edwards, Weiner or any one of their ilk. Human sin, while often individual in nature, is almost always communal in effect.  “I” might do wrong but inevitably “we” pay the price for that wrongheaded choice. So when a person is unfaithful to a spouse, it potentially destroys an entire family system.  When an officeholder chooses to use their power and ego to cross an ethical line, he or she hurts an institution, an entire community, and even a whole nation.  How we humans live matters. The choices we make have huge implications and not just for ourselves alone but for all those around us. Sin is never just about me; it is also about “thee” too.

So the next time some high flying politician or public figure gets caught in a sin and then holds a press conference to weep crocodile tears and offer pseudo apologies, we should remember all the unnamed folks who are not before the cameras and the klieg lights.  The people who were taken down because someone they depended upon let them down, often very hard. The heartbroken spouses.  The deceived kids.  The embarrassed colleagues.  The besmirched office.  The duped voters.  The whole community.

In the end, human sin hurts every one.  That’s something to tweet about.

Monday, June 6, 2011

What if?

 Dystopia (noun) 1. a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.  Antonym: Utopia, a society characterized by human contentedness, as cooperation, freedom, health and peace.

The book is titled 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America and it portrays a dystopian vision that may not be so far off or even fictional.  Written by the comedian Albert Brooks, film writer, director and actor (Lost In America, Broadcast News, Defending Your Life, Finding Nemo), the story imagines the United States in just nineteen years. The science fiction premise of the book is that a universal cure for cancer is found, resulting in radically increased longevity for aging America. Suddenly a whole demographic of folks, especially baby boomers, is living vitally and well into their nineties and beyond in unprecedented numbers.  That’s the good news, utopia. 

The bad news, dystopia, is that this group has essentially sucked dry the ability of the federal government to provide Medicare and Social Security services and payments for the burgeoning elder population. Most of the federal budget is devoted to debt service. Uncle Sam and the United States is essentially flat broke, a floundering and failing nation marked by political gridlock and governmental impotence. The young in 2030 live hopeless and bitter lives, aware that the American Dream their parents and grandparents so cherished has essentially gone nightmarish.  China is now the world’s superpower.  America is second rate, a debtor nation.  The young form “Resentment Gangs” and plot revenge against the old.  That’s all I’ll reveal from the plot. 2030 is a compelling, somewhat depressing but sobering and prescient read, a very unfunny book from a very funny guy.

And maybe not so far fetched.  As I write this column the Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the President are locked in a frightening game of chicken.  The deadline for raising the national debt ceiling fast approaches: August 2nd.  The markets are in somewhat of a June swoon right now and some fear that without a raised debt ceiling, the whole economy might tank.  Conservatives seem more than willing to float the notion that America should risk defaulting on its debt of $14,000,000,000,000.  (That’s about $46,000 per US citizen.) Liberals seem frozen and up until now have been unwilling to come up with their own plan to right America’s listing fiscal ship.  Is this what the beginning of dystopia looks like?

That’s a hard “what if?” to imagine.  After all, as a person of faith, I’m in the utopia business, the hope that if only folks can follow the message of love, which God has forever attempted to teach us, the future is bright.  We can all get along.  And with the right civic stuff and wise leadership and mutual sacrifice and big ideas and a national commitment, we can weather this storm as we always have in the past, right? The Civil War. The Depression. World War II.  The Cold War. We came through then, maybe not utopian but certainly better, stronger, more whole as a nation.

But this time?  I hate to confess it but I’m not so sure.  Does America and its citizens and its politicians have the fortitude and strength needed to turn things around?  We’ve got the solutions. This year several bi-partisan groups, both government sponsored and private, proposed various plans for getting our books in order.  These plans all offer basically the same answers. Trim social programs.  Increase some taxes.  Raise the retirement age.  Cut defense.  The thing I respect about these proposals is that they ask everyone to give, every one.  Elders and the young. The rich and the middle class and the poor.  Conservatives and liberals.  Guns and butter.

Yet when I listen to the tone of the debate in Washington all I hear from the pols is bitter partisan barbs. Folks, even in the face of potential dystopia, seem interested in only defending their narrow view of what is “best for America”.  Even worse neither side is willing to challenge the American citizenry to sacrifice, not even a little bit.  Getting re-elected trumps doing what is best for all of us, it would seem.

Still I’m hoping 2030 is a fiction at best, a good summer read, an enlightening tale which just might jolt some of us into getting serious about both governing and being governed.  I want to anticipate a future which, while not necessarily utopian, at least calls us to our very best as Americans and as human beings. 

For now the clock is ticking.  The deadline approaches.  What will it be? Utopia or dystopia?