Molly, Paul and me
Well, I guess it is official. I now tell people that I am a writer, and that I have a column. This is a radically new self-image for me. Writing is something that I always wanted to do. Now I am actually doing it. I have held my tongue because I did not believe I could add anything useful to the debate. Now I think maybe I can add something of value.
Every time the teacher (that’s you) chooses to, I get to have my work graded and read to the whole class (the web community.) My analogy does not line up quite right, but that doesn’t matter, since I am now in charge. I am a Writer. I can put words is people/s mouths, lie, act stupid, and braketherulesofgrammer. I am omnipotent. What is even better, I do not have to worry about my poor spelling or pronunciation. My wife is always razzing my language failures. I laugh. Einstein couldn’t make coffee I tell her, of course, he did master the tools of his trade. Oh well. I sympathize a lot with the clod who is our President, his father’s Vice-President, and all the embarrassing mediocrity that is the wealth of our humanity. If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you end up crying about stupid things. I stand before you raw and exposed. So what. Does anyone really care? And what if they did?
None of this could have happened without Apple. So again, I owe them a debt of gratitude. Apple technology has really made my life immensely better, especially the laptops. I also love my new iPod, much more than I would have expected, even though I’ve had it for only a few weeks. Remember the commercial with the geek-thin kid who says he feels powerful? I know just how he feels. Of course, we all know how power corrupts….
Have you noticed I always do these weird personal introductions before getting to the meat of the essay? It seems to drive a lot of people nuts. I do it because I want to remind the reader to realize that an essay is just an idea written by one person at some specific moment in time. It is not perfect, or complete, or a definitive principle that will last forever. The printed word has no more authority over our life than a casually spoken word, but people fall into the trap of giving it more value. In the Bible, the only things that really matter are the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ command to Love One Another. Everything else is just a man’s exploration in understanding. It may be insightful, inspiring and divinely given, but it is just one man’s account. If you read between the lines, you will find that the thing I write most about is Loving One Another. Separately from it being hard to practice all the time, it is also a difficult command to understand. I do believe it is a command we are all challenged to live.
Some people think writers should be objective. I AM NOT ONE OF THEM. Nope, I think the whole point of writing is to say something. It can be smart or stupid, but it damn well had better challenge the reader. My feeling is that it is better to be loud and wrong than quiet and right. If you look at how Congress operates, you know that is how life seems to work. Of course there are different genres of writing, and with some forms of writing or topics, it may be grossly inappropriate to challenge the reader. Fortunately, I am not writing in that genre, so you won’t get much of that playing it safe crap from me. I didn’t hold my tongue all these years so I could engage in blah-speak. In fact, I have already told my wife what I want my epithet to read: I tried my best, to be wise, funny and kind, now it is your turn. I want to challenge the reader even when I am dead and gone, like Philoxenos challenged Thomas Merton.
Some people do not get the chance to challenge others. Not because they did not want to, or because they were uninterested, but because they are murdered. This week, here in Massachusetts, the remains of Molly Bish were found. Molly was just a kid, sixteen years old, and working as a lifeguard, when she disappeared 3 years ago this month. Her family now has a small amount of closure in their well of grief, her bones to bury. The tormented soul who stole her life remains unknown.
We all know Molly. She is a friend, a daughter, a niece, and a neighbor. Her story is the chaos of our lives: the thing we do not want to happen. It is the car accident, the illness, the slip and fall that unmask the raw edge of our humanity. It is the cross we fear to bear.
We do not get to choose the burdens in our lives, they are thrust upon us. While some burdens are more tragic than others, no one escapes them. Burdens are a natural part of our humanity. Even if we get everything we ever wanted, time will catch up to our body and us will deteriorate. No amount of planning or wealth can create a burden-free life.
The Bish family has tried to use their pain wisely. During the last three years, they have advocated for children, promoted identification kits, and lived a public life of amazing strength despite their personal grief. They challenge parents and society to think and protect the children. They want to spare us all the pain and chaos they have had to endure.
Paul is a customer who came in to buy some t-shirts the other day. He had not been in for a long while, which is unusual for him. He works doing reach-out for a poor inner city neighborhood, trying to keep kids on the straight and narrow path. His work is not very different from that which the Bish’s do to protect children.
I don’t know Paul’s personal history, or why he chose his career path. This time when he came in, he was wearing an ear bud. I assumed it was a radio or walkie-talkie or something, so I asked, “What are you listening to?” He told me that he was going deaf, and that it was a hearing aid. He couldn’t afford to buy “real” hearing aids, but under the Americans with Disabilities Act, his employer (a community health center) had to accommodate his disability. They did so by purchasing this iPod like device sound amplifier.
Both my daughter and my mother wear hearing aids, so when he said he couldn’t afford them, I knew what he meant. After wearing her original ones for seven years, my daughter had just replaced hers. Big bucks.
I couldn’t help thinking, again, isn’t this an amazing economic system we have built? The burdens caused by a criminal or by our health are beyond our control, but how is it that Paul doesn’t have hearing aids for both ears like my mother and daughter? There is plenty enough of chaos that we cannot control, but what about the chaos that festers which is man-made? Are we so unwise that we cannot solve an obvious inexpensive problem? Would we deny a blind man a cane, a crying baby comfort, or a hungry person food?
YES, YES, YES! We would do all types of similar things, almost by design. We create an artificial pecking order of pain. If your number comes up in the chaos lottery, you might get some help; if not, you are on your own. Since Paul’s number did not come up, he does not get hearing aids. They are sitting on a shelf somewhere, unused.
The criminal who murdered Molly committed both a moral and an economic crime. Obviously the moral crime and loss of life is most important. The cost of the formal investigation, the volunteers search time, the media, the emotional chill that occupied us, and an economically productive life were all lost in her murder. The cost of any one part of this economic crime is many times greater than the cost of the hearing aids that Paul needs.
Paul’s loss of hearing is part of the chaos of things that he doesn’t want to happen. Compared to the Bish family, he is very lucky. In terms of planning, for both of them the chaos was an equally unforeseen event. When Molly went missing, the state directed all its resources to locating her, without too much regard to cost. For Paul, the regard for his problem was limited because of the cost. Obviously, a missing girl requires an immediate draconian response. As it is for a sailor lost at sea, the window of opportunity is short, and the more time passes the worse the situation. But did we really expect that no one would develop hearing problems this year? We know the rhythm of chaos, yet we ignore it.
My late sister won the chaos lottery. She developed kidney disease and worked for the phone company. Not only did she have great medical and disability benefits while she was sick, but the state of Massachusetts underwrites kidney illness. She was among the early long-term successes to receive a kidney transplant, and lived a preciously difficult 20 years with my fathersÕ organ inside of her. Her doctor was awarded a Nobel Peace Price for pioneering transplant technology. Everything that could be done for her was done.
In the hometown of the Nobel Prize winning doctor an intersection is named for him. This man, like Paul, spent his life working for the betterment of others. We should not name streets after people, we should name them after ideas and concepts, as a reminder that there is always a road or a path to our ideals, and that there is more than one way to get there. My sistersÕ name was Grace, our society needs more grace. Be Graceful Boulevard is an address I would like to share with my neighbors. Let us meet sometime at the intersection of Love and Family.
So what of Paul and Molly? Paul probably won’t be getting his hearing aids any time soon, and the Earth will soon swallow up our beloved Molly. We will start a new day, and a new battle with everydayness, and hope that the burden of chaos will pass over us again. There is so much fun stuff that we have yet to have, and chaos is so imposing.
In Voltaire’s, Candide the character Pangloss would say, “Whatever is, is best.” He was in an infinite loop, doing the same things over and over again. Whatever bad thing happened was okay, whatever good thing happened was okay. His role was simply to tend to himself, and wrap himself in a convenient fiction of morality, where no corrective action is ever necessary. Many people think like Pangloss, that if we take our own lumps magnanimously, then that frees us of a need to concern ourselves with another person’s chaos. Love One Another is a command of inaction according to this interpretation.
Still, I weep for Molly, and I feel bad for Paul. Our bravado culture of self-reliance is a trap. The self-policing mechanism of free enterprise enslaves us to the same Panglossian stupidity and immorality. We are a community, or we are nothing. We cannot stop the chaos, but we can lighten its burden when it arrives. What we do for fear of death, we can do for life. To stand idle while chaos reigns is foolish and immoral.
I recently posted an essay called, On Life, Death and Living…and Dixie Chicks. Did you chance to read it? I describe conservatives as lazy thinkers and liberals as stupid. That would seem to imply that I must then be a know-it-all. I’m not, I just think our politics are at an intellectual and moral dead-end. No one is listening to the other speak, but both sides have plenty of good arguments. They must, since they swap sides on the issues constantly. There is an assumption today that anything anyone says is colored by his or her political view. As soon as someone has a scent of that person’s politics, a reality distortion field goes into effect. I went in search of finding a moral solution, for a common ground of our humanity. I am a proudly naive optimist. If we can agree on a single fundamental moral question, then we can grow that consensus and our experience to arrive at broad agreement on a number of constantly divisive issues.
The question I asked is whether it is better to kill or be killed, from strictly a moral perspective. It was, I thought, a very simple question, with an obvious moral answer. What I found instead was that conservatives have trouble hearing the question. I pulled a thread of commonality through McCarthyism, the Clinton investigations, and the anti-Dixie Chicks criticism. The same thread explained Islamic terrorism, suicide bombers, the Vietnam Conflict and explored the moral dilemma of war. As much as anything I have ever read, it explains the perpetual divisions that mark human affairs. It was a call for intellectuals to speak loudly and clearly about the issues they have taken the time to ponder, and called on citizens to sacrifice more, and respect the power of their vote for the revolutionary change that it is.
The Democrats probably liked it because it seemed to attack Republicans, and the Republicans were so enraged by certain characterizations that they missed the point to the entire essay. For those who missed the point: IT IS NOT ABOUT POLITICAL PARTIES. It is about conservative MORAL choices and liberal MORAL choices. We all make both, both political parties make both. My argument is that if we just make liberal MORAL choices, then many of the conflicts we fight will cease to be.
What I also discovered is that those who shout loudest about liberal moral relativism are already guilty of moral abandonment. The liberal morals are consistent and patient and forgiving and self-sacrificing. The conservative morals are absolute, impatient, and hateful. Complex cerebral schemes are constructed to justify a cocoon of superiority and expediency. Hate, killing, and rage all co-exist easily in a conservative morality. Morality suspended to defend morality is the devil. One cannot love with hate anymore than one can hate with love.
The political parties have aligned themselves around a chaotic mixture of greed, need, and opposing moral choices. Like two planets caught in a gravitational orbit, whenever one party changes its moral position to match the other, the other party shifts its gravitational pull to the opposite effect. This is the cause of our political distress. Our morality is out of balance. Recently President Bush called on Israel to stop attacking Palestine in retaliation of suicide bombers. It was good advice. Die First rather than Kill First. The problem is, when he was confronted with the same choice, he made the same choice Israel did, to Kill First.
We all choose to believe in God. My essay, Interpretation of the unknown, does not really prove that God exists, despite my best efforts. If we can make the positive choice to affirm God’s existence, then we can likewise make the conscious positive choice to Die First, which is the only proper expression of morality. By agreeing on this one fundamental point, we can reconstruct our society.
The chaos of our lives can be viewed optimistically or pessimistically. The conservative view is pessimistic, the liberal view is optimistic. One is impudent, the other omnipotent. Morality is the courage and strength to do the difficult. Kill First is a fair-weather morality, based on fear, it is as relativistic as relativism can be. It fails every challenge. It serves neither God nor man. Unfortunately, it is also a strong impulse.
Chances are, you may be wondering why anyone would have the audacity to suggest a Constitutional Convention, especially in light of our current politics. Mao had his Little Red Book, Karl Mark his Communist Manifesto, Thomas Paine had Common Sense, Chernyshevsky had What is to be Done? Words can change the world. Nothing is more important than the ideas in our heads. The whole point to free speech is to speak loudly, with the hope that the best ideas will be recognized. Whatever we choose to do will be an imperfect solution, since we ourselves are imperfect, but that does not mean our lot can’t be made better.
This essay is to give a reflection of the ramblings in my head. Yes, it is all psycho-babble. Whatever genius I have will be proven to be folly some day. I’m not Mao. Not only do I have self-doubts, but I can envision why and how I should be wrong. What I suggest is only a small step. Compared to what should be known by each man, I know only a little. My philosophy is a distillation of only what I have had the opportunity to learn. What I don’t know or can’t imagine, I cannot accommodate. I have some keys that seem to make sense. They are morally and economically consistent. Nevertheless, the chaos of everyoneÕs life will continue. Those with a poor or troubled spirit will always need a helping hand, and demand and consume greater attention and resources than those with a strong spirit. A Second Constitutional Convention needs to be part of our continuing evolution. America is a leader in the world, we should have the courage to take small steps. We have a global responsibility to lead wisely, and a debt to pay to the Native Americans and American slaves.
Imagine a world and a life better than the one we live in now- a world where hate and murder and killing is rare, a world where the deaf can hear mechanically, a world where the simple problems are solved, and we are free to explore our human spirit. Whatever philosophy or religion we embrace, we must embrace our imperfection with it. To think we know the truth means we have yet to begin the journey.
I am a mundane man living a mundane life. I am a church-going shopkeeper leading the exemplary life of hard-work and self-reliance. Political conservatives would describe me as the perfect American citizen. I do not believe this Panglossian interpretation of free enterprise that suggests I am virtuous. The real heroes in our society are Paul, the Bish’s in their advocacy, and the good doctor who spent years in search of a cure. They sacrifice themselves to a Die First moral choice. They plant and nurture seeds, rather than demanding the fruit of the harvest. That is the heroic example of Love One Another.
A society based on morality is a challenge for all of us, and the rewards are much greater than personal wealth. By empowering the real heroes, rather than entrepreneurs, we will have more real heroes. Much of the chaos that man suffers is man-made. The chaos caused by the criminal, Mother Nature, and time will always be with us, but our strength as a community is greater than our strength as an individual. Youthful exuberance and selfishness, a form of both lazy thinking and stupidness, will always exist, because personal journeys begin anew every day in maternity wards. People like Paul will always have a job in challenging youth to think beyond themselves and adopt a Die First philosophy. It takes time to grow morally mature.
The mistakes and wise choices of the past have given us the opportunity to make a different choice, as they always do. The current domestic and international political situation requires that we do something big, and it would be best if we do it quickly. 9/11 was a challenge. My essay, Slavery to Utopia, is a challenge. Can we create a society where to Die First is always the first choice? Can we achieve an 80/20 consensus and peace between men? Can the adults of this world lead the children, or will selfish youthful exuberance and moral confusion continue to define our nation?
I am a writer. I do not write for the art of writing, but for the politics of the moment. Our American destiny has been to challenge the world as much as ourselves. The time has come to do it again.
Free Will is best expressed as a personal challenge, a willingness to choose the difficult and carry it through to the end. Parents and soldiers are everyday examples of Free Will.
Free Will is choosing to Love, regardless of the cost. Free Will is the courage to make a moral decision, but which one? To Kill First or Die First?
Kill First is self-preservation and power and complacency with the status quo. It seeks to divide rather than unite. Die First is radical. It is an intellectual passion that overrules our emotional anger. It is an emotional purity that overrules our intellectual fears. The moral and political challenge I write about has Love at its center. It is a revolution against hate, against selfishness, against fear. Can America lead the world with high moral principles? Can we defeat terrorism with an example of our renewal? I believe we can. We all lead mundane lives, and this is the challenge for mundane people everywhere.