Friday, October 25, 2013

How arguments with children can strengthen America

“People will do anything they want if they think they can get away with it.”

With stories of scams and scandals repeated at a frenzied pace in the era of digital media, I recently found myself musing on how, and why, individuals would jeopardize their careers, their family and their honor by making potentially devastating decisions. I remembered a conversation several years ago with a friend (whose identity is now lost to the fog of time) in which he suggested my leading sentence, that individuals are capable of any action, regardless of its morality if 1) they desire the perceived benefits the action would confer and 2) think that no-one will be the wiser (or judge them poorly).

I don’t particularly care for this suggestion, for it paints a very negative view of mankind. It depicts man as a selfish creature interested only in his own well-being, even at the expense of others. I’ve felt this way for a short time on many an occasion, as I’m sure all of us have at some point – but I just can’t accept it as true. However, I take it up wholeheartedly with the addition of one important corollary; “An individual’s conscience can judge a person to the same effect as a separate person altogether.” In essence, an individual’s conscience can be that angel on your shoulder. Unable to remain unnoticed and un-judged in decisions, a conscientious person cannot help but make the “right” decision.

So, the barrier to immorality is a conscience.

This means, by extension, the scams and scandals to which I referred are the result of underdeveloped or absent consciences.

Now perhaps I look at history through rose-colored glasses, and there were just as many scams and scandals in the past as there are now. But, if we as a Nation are now suffering from a general decline in morality (as I and many others would suggest we are), then we must work to ensure a greater function in our individual consciences.

“…ensure a greater function in our individual consciences…” What does that even mean?

It means effort, and it means study.

Ok, but how?

I attended the University of St Thomas, a (nominally) Catholic university located in St Paul, MN. Though many of my colleagues did not appreciate it at the time, our general education requirements included a minimum of two, four-credit classes studying philosophy and three studying theology. Though I learned a great deal about a variety of old-dead-white-guys’ ideas, what I really took away was a deeper understanding of how to make moral decisions. What St Thomas’ professors did well was to make us think about what we believe was right and wrong (often in contrast with the aforementioned old-dead-white-guys [ODWG’s]). In its simplest description, they exercised my conscience. Since the school is nominally Catholic, some of the classes attempted to show how those ODWG’s of the Catholic persuasion were more correct than others, but even these classes encouraged students to consider various viewpoints while drawing conclusions. The result? All students from physicians to musicians graduated with basic ability to draw logically sound conclusions, and with an understanding that such things as “right” and “wrong” decisions do exist. By developing this understanding, the students develop the beginnings of a barrier to immorality. Religious education isn’t for everyone, as my frequent arguments with professors could attest; however, an introduction to basic philosophy can benefit all students, whether 21 and in a university or 51 and in a corporate or government environment.

But, as a friend of mine succinctly put it, “study alone does not a conscience make.” Effort is central to this endeavor, like any other of value. Once developed through study, a conscience must continue to be exercised. Fortunately, this type of exercise shouldn’t make you out of breath, though your pulse might quicken at times. Discussions of what’s right and wrong, especially through logical argumentation, will build individual capacity for moral reasoning. The discussions can be based on current events, history, or even hypothetical situations. In working through a moral question, an individual can take a stance they believe in, or play “Devil’s advocate” and argue the opposite. Skills and intellect will be honed by practice and ingenuity. Even better for families, these discussions are an easy way for parents to pass on valuable lessons to their children, achieving multiple victories at once. Beyond discussions, small moral decisions are thrust upon each of us daily, giving opportunity for near-continual exercise and honest self-evaluation.

With a little bit of dedication and concerted effort, the next generation of Americans can easily outstrip their predecessors and parents in moral decisions and begin to reestablish America as the bastion of “right” in the world.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lessons from the Greeks: Just Do It

I finished a riveting biography of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency earlier this week, so I've been looking for a new book to dive into.  While perusing a used bookstore, I stumbled over a copy of HerodotusThe Histories

Though I was familiar with the author’s name (I knew he was a classic Greek writer), I had little to no idea what the book was about.  As I’ve been trying to build the depth and breadth of my personal library for a while now, and this copy was a particularly nice looking hard-cover, I picked it up.  Paging through the introduction late last night, I was hit by an epiphany; Nike is right!

Yep, this Nike.
Now, if you’re familiar with ancient Greek literature, you might think I mean Nike (pronounced NEE-kay), the goddess of victory, but you’d be wrong.  I actually mean the sportswear company with everyone’s favorite logo, the “swoosh.” Nike’s motto, and the reason for my epiphany, is “Just Do It.”

Whoa… Tying 20th century marketing to classic Greeks?  Either this post is going to be incredibly insightful, or a huuuuuge stretch of the imagination.  Hopefully the former, probably both.  In either event, I’m convinced there’s a valuable lesson to be had.

The original Mustang.
Exactly 1 horsepower.
Herodotus was borne into a particularly interesting period of history.  Sophocles, Socrates, Plato and Zeno all lived and labored in and around the Mediterranean.  Persia fought wars against the Greek states, and was told off by Gerard Butler (ahem, I mean, Leonidas of Sparta) before being defeated at Plataia and Mycale.  In the Orient, men known as Buddha and Confucius died, leaving their followers to wonder if the goat they took to the market was actually their leader, reincarnated.  In this time, more than 400 years before the birth of Christ, Herodotus traveled to lands that are now Iran, Egypt, North Africa, Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.  He traveled across the known world in an age when a fast ride was a surefooted horse.  And, he did this all in his mid-to-late-20’s.

Makes me wish I had gone further than this coffee shop today…

How does this tie into Nike’s advertising?  Well, he was borne into a prominent family, and could have whiled away his afternoons drinking wine and lounging in the beautiful sunshine that pervades the region.  But he didn’t.  He could have followed the traditional, respected intellectual path of the time and written plays which would be performed for the citizens of his locale.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he trekked and sailed and journeyed further than many others of his day.  More importantly, he recorded his and others accounts of the world, accidentally installing himself as the “father” of historical studies.  He just went out and “did”, without concern for his image or reputation (In fact, Herodotus studiously avoids any references to himself in his History).

How often do we stop ourselves from pursuing our goals out of concern for others’ reactions, or for any number of reasons?  And, after limiting ourselves over and over again, how can we be surprised when we find our lives stagnant, unfulfilling?  We can end up in a vicious cycle, perpetuating Newton’s First Law of Motion*, as stagnation begets itself.  The major difference between us and the particles studied by Newton is that we can act upon ourselves and, as Nike would have us, just do it.
*Summarized, the law states that an object at rest will stay at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force.

A 25 year old Herodotus crossed the world and changed the way we recorded history without aid from the internet, modern transportation, or an iPhone… 

What is it you wanted to do today? 

Just do it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

We Mustn't Quit, We Must Continue!

Pile driver - not a wrestling move...
After writing yesterday, I questioned the material which I had just flung into the public forum.  Though I did not doubt the essence of my message, I was concerned that it was too straightforward, too blunt.  In an era of flashy packaging and clever marketing ploys, it might not have the nuance needed to be well received.  Fortunately, I’m not the only person in the history of writing to have wrestled with this problem, and an oft’ repeated line by Winston Churchill quickly steeled my resolve to press forward. “If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again.”

So, I'll continue to drive the point home, and my articles to come will surely provoke a variety of reactions among those who read them.  But, they will remain - to the best of my ability – clear, un-equivocating, and frank.  Though no one, no matter how much they profess so, can remove their own biases from what thoughts they produce, I will endeavor to keep my discussions free of partisan politics.  My focus is, and will remain on, how best to revitalize the American people. 

So, how do we do that?

There's no simple solution, but for a start, we mustn’t quit.  Seems pretty obvious when there in black and white, but it’s much more difficult to apply in real life.  Unintentionally, many of us can allow the world to pass us by in a blur of daily routines, television reruns, and lazy evenings on the couch. 

Several of you just stopped reading, thinking, “There’s nothing wrong with my evening routine!  After a hard day’s work, all I want is to relax with my family and watch our favorite show, <insert whatever HBO’s showing here>.”  For those still with me, it’s not the relaxing that’s an issue, and not even the HBO miniseries (John Adams, anyone?). The issue is, we settle into a comfortable pattern and cocoon ourselves in layers of routine.  Slowly, the effort we expend decreases as we become familiar with our routine (perhaps accompanied by a commensurate increase in waistline). Eventually, there will come a point where even small breaks from the norm become difficult.  Unintentionally or otherwise, over time it’s easy to quit.

We must not quit - we must continue.

Both for those already pursuing strenuous lives, and for those mired in a routine of ease, Churchill again offers wisdom, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We must continue for ourselves. 

We must improve ourselves through mental and physical exercise.  America did not mandate schooling for its children in order for them to quit learning after 9-12 years of education, it did so to provide each member of our Republic the building blocks upon which he or she can continue to improve their intellect.  Good, bad, or indifferent, the education each American receives provides the beginning of what can be a lifetime of learning. Opportunities for physical betterment abound in our country, whether by walking the stairs in Richmond or summiting mountains in the Rockies.  But, improving ourselves requires continued effort.

We must continue for our families.

We must make time for our families, despite drain from work, or frustration with life’s daily trials. Since its founding, the American nation has been comprised of families, bound by love, by experiences and by effort.  Much concern and time is voiced at every level of our government out of concern for “the American family”, acknowledging the vital role it plays in raising the next generation of citizens.  Advances in technology allow us to maintain familial relationships far easier and further than in previous generations, but the American family still requires the effort and attention of its members. It's not easy, but we must continue.

We must continue for our communities.

We must build and strengthen our communities.  The surge of growth and mobility that has brought us to the 21st century ushered in an era of both construction and devastation. The rapid growth of urban and suburban centers took a severe toll on the communal bonds which once held us together.  It’s not enough to simply sit back and bemoan the loss of small-town American society. Opportunities for new community are present as ever - the form may be different but the function the same, they provide Americans the means to shape and improve the place in which they live.  As anyone reading this can likely vouch for, working with others takes effort – especially when dealing with something as personal and delicate as a community. But we must continue.

Despite all these efforts, the personal and societal rewards of doing so far outstrip the work expended.  In dedicating more effort to self, familial and community improvement, we will find happiness in laboring towards a noble goal while producing tangible successes towards the betterment of our lives. And if we fail along the way, so be it. We can pick ourselves up, brush off the dust, and continue on.  A strenuous path at least, but one well worthy of our exertions.

I'll close with three questions for you to mull over:
--What do you think America's populace needs to rebound?
--Who needs to be involved in order to make it happen?
--How do we enlist their willing participation?