Friday, September 04, 2015

Visibility, Innocence, and Compassion

A recent news photo showed a policeman approaching a drowned refugee toddler.  An interview with the toddler’s father revealed that he had lost his wife and both of their children in a desperate attempt to cross the Mediterranean to a Greek island.   The image and the story work powerfully to make us aware of the plight of the many refugees worldwide who are desperately trying to move to a better life.

About 55 million people die worldwide, each year.  We cannot grieve for all in the same way.  We know little or nothing of most of them; we seldom know that they have passed away.  The image and story above  demonstrate how just a bit of visibility can increase our compassion for thousands of people.   Because it is a toddler who died, we know that he is innocent of any wrongdoing that could have contributed to his demise.  When we hear of war deaths, we may feel compassion for all involved, but particularly for non-combatants impacted by the violence.

Mass shootings are disturbing, but mass shootings of school students are particularly upsetting.  And the death of so many Sandy Hook elementary students was especially shocking.  The younger the victim, the greater the gut impact.

When we learn of a tragic death, the impact is greatest when the victim is young and innocent.  How then is it that we have hardened our hearts to deaths of children killed in their mother’s womb?  Surely one factor is that we do not see them, and seldom hear specific stories of their final days. An unborn child is close to invisible, so far as the public is concerned.  Photos of the bodies of aborted children are decried as too gruesome for publication.  Although abortion is legal, it is seldom spoken of publicly by those who chose to have one or perform one.

Euphemisms are also used to minimize the impact of an unborn child’s death.  Fetus is used when the child is unwanted.  Baby is invariably used when expectant parents look forward to a birth.  Attention is directed to the mother’s health, despite the fact that a small minority of abortions are done to prevent injury to the mother.  Implicit is the idea that an unborn child’s death is a minor tragedy compared to constraining a mother from making the decision to have the child killed.  A common assertion is that since it is the woman’s body, it is the woman’s decision.  That presumes that the baby is still a part of a woman’s body up until it is born.  Even if that were the case, there exist perfectly healthy people with a profound belief that they need to have one of their limbs amputated because the limb “doesn’t belong to them”.   It is a rare surgeon that agrees to remove a healthy limb.  How then is it that surgeons are readily found to end the life of a healthy baby, even if we were to accept the idea that the baby is part of the woman’s body?  

Sometimes visibility in the simplest sense of the word is not possible.  We must exercise the ability to envision the unseen that is one of the great gifts we have as human beings.  I urge each of us to use that ability to envision the plight of the innocent and persecuted so that we may feel the compassion needed to spur us toward creating a more just society.drowned toddler 2.jpg

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

In 1941, Alcoholics Anonymous adopted a short prayer, a modified version of a longer one by Reinhold Niebuhr.  The AA version goes as follows:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Simple, but not easy.

It seems our culture has adopted the mantras to the effect that  we can do whatever we dream of, whatever we work hard enough for, or whatever we pray fervently for.  We are exhorted to give ourselves fully to our passions, our dreams, our desires.   Age is not seen as a barrier, for “you are only as old as you think you are”  or “you are only as old as you feel” with the implicit admonition to think and feel young.  

Vast is the distance between those cliches and the reality that we experience most days.  They are meant as encouragement, and perhaps they work that way for a while, but soon enough we learn that there are things that we cannot change.  Many things.   Oh, we can nibble away at the edges of some problems, and it is good to do so. We may eventually eliminate this or that burden, or at least lighten it significantly.  Therefore, we can quite rightly ask God for the courage to change the things we can.  But serenity will certainly elude us if we cling to the idea that we can change everything if we just believe more or try harder.

Enjoy your victories.  Thank God for such courage and strength you have. Use them well. However, also gracefully accept the hard truth that there are things you will not change much, if at all.  Seek the wisdom to discern how you should expend your finite energy, intelligence, skills, and persistence. You are finite, and you mock God if you pretend otherwise.

Of course you should enlist the help of our infinite, all powerful God.  But it is foolish, even blasphemous, to suppose that he will do whatever you ask, just the way you ask for it, regardless of your motives.  God is not a genie to be summoned by rubbing the bottle of heaven with your prayers.  You are finite, and you mock God if you pretend otherwise.

If you are enjoying an abundance of energy, optimism, and blessing,  I am glad for you.  This essay may not seem much use.   I encourage you to store away the basic precepts for reference should that blissful state diminish.

On the other hand, if you feel overwhelmed and unable to change anything at all, I ask only that you move one tiny step to effect change that may seem insignificant for now.  During the depths of a clinical depression, I felt unable to exercise, despite the benefits it promised.  I read an article that exhorted me to stand up, walk 5 minutes in one direction and then walk back.  I did that.  I did it again, and again as days passed.  I soon found that I could go a bit further each day.  Eventually I was walking for an hour each day during my lunch.
But perhaps you cannot take an actual  step.  I am reminded of public figures like Stephen Hawking that are trapped in a body that cannot move. Let the step be metaphorical.  Choose to think of one thing that will change things for the better.  Ask God for the courage to change something, even if it is a single thought.  Ask Him to show you the truth about what you can do.

I write things like this primarily as reminders to myself.  I post them so that perhaps a single other struggling soul will be helped by them.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

That Saved a Wretch Like Me

Last week, President Obama sang the first verse of Amazing Grace at a memorial service for those slain in the mass shooting at an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. Perhaps many of you will be aware that the song was written by John Newton, a slave trader who became a Christian. You may not know that Newton continued in the slave trade for a number of years following his confession of Christ as his savior. Newton wrote that first verse of Amazing Grace in 1848 while he waited for his ship to be repaired after a storm that so humbled him that he called out to God for mercy. Incredibly, that ship was rescuing Newton who had himself become a slave to a slave trader's African wife. Nonetheless, Newton went on to captain other slaving ships until ill health forced him to retire from the sea. Newton became a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1764. His reputation for wisdom and spiritual depth grew until he was embraced as a guide by many prominent people of his day, as well as by the church at large. Eventually, his eyes opened to the horror of the slave trade. He became active in the abolitionist movement.
The verse that President Obama sang was written by a man who had slain and tortured many African slaves while quelling revolts on his ships. Early in his career he was a notorious drunk and an enthusiastic participant in the common practice of raping the slave women. Even as he wrote "that saved a wretch like me" he was still early in the process of being redeemed and made Christlike. That process was ongoing when he died in 1807.
A Christian is not one who has turned to God and stopped sinning. A Christian is one who has turned to God because he is a sinner and needs a life time of grace from God to transform him into a likeness of Christ. Christians are aware that the transformation is not completed in this life. We are assured by God that He is glorified even in our weakness. We have been lost, found, and are still being guided home.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

One Nation Under God

One Nation Under God

The U.S. pledge of allegiance was written in 1893 as follows:

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."  Notice that there is not a reference to a specific country nor a reference to God.  The author Francis Bellamy, a Christian minister who was also a fervent Socialist,  actually hoped that the pledge could be used in any country.  However, he was actually enlisted to create the pledge and an accompanying flag raising ceremony by a magazine, The Youth’s Companion,  as part of a campaign to sell a U.S. flags to American schools and to increase subscriptions to the magazine.

The pledge was modified, against Bellamy’s wishes,  in 1923 to be more specific about which flag was being referred to:

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Bellamy ran a successful campaign to popularize the pledge.  He appealed to school superintendents, governors, congressmen, and the president.  After being used widely for decades, the pledge was formally adopted by the U.S. congress in 1942.

It was modified one more time in February, 1954 with the addition of “under God” as follows:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

The change was made following six years of campaigning by various individuals and organizations, especially the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the American Revolution, and The Knights of Columbus.  President Eisenhower, baptized only a year earlier, was moved by a sermon that spoke of the need to make clear the spiritual foundation of the republic. His pastor, George Docherty, said "there was something missing in the pledge, and that which was missing was the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life." With Eisenhower’s fervent support, the pledge was adopted after previous failed attempts in Congress.

The Declaration of Independence, was written in 1776 and formally adopted by the Continental Congress, the forerunner to our current U.S. Congress.  The first two paragraphs made the spiritual foundation of the new nation very clear.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Armed conflict towards independence had been underway for over a year by the time this declaration was adopted.  The references to a single God, creator of mankind, and the giver of basic human rights were foundational in explaining the need for such extreme measures.  If secularists were to revamp the Declaration of Independence, I find it hard to imagine what foundation they could use in God’s stead.  The idea that adding God to the pledge of allegiance was counter to the spirit and intent of our nation’s founders is absurd given their very clear references to God in the document that proclaimed the United States as a nation.

Recently, I was strongly struck by how thoroughly we have removed references to the one true God, our creator, from our everyday discourse, both private and public.   How is it that the very foundation of our successful country, with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities, could come to be seen as an aberration, or even an embarrassment, in daily conversations and in our social and public media?

I believe in God.  I trust in God.  I talk to God.  I do my best to hear God when he speaks, and to obey as he directs.   I am not ashamed.   Are you?

Monday, June 08, 2015

Contributing to a Better World

Each one of us contributes to the improvement or degradation of our culture.  In order to decide which of our actions are positive and which are negative, we have to establish a basis for deciding what is good and what is evil.   Without such a basis, how could we possibly decide whether our activities are making things better or worse.  Even with such a basis, we may struggle to demonstrate that our actions are making a desirable contribution and are without unintended consequences that negate the good we strove for.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote:  “Without God all things are permissible.”   Let us consider some alternatives to Dostoyevsky’s proposition.  

  1. There is no God, but some things are not permissible.     We could say,    “The universe as we perceive it was not created by anyone or anything.  It came into being out of nothing with assistance from nothing.  We see it change.  So we may ask what is the desirable future state of the universe?   We humans are sentient beings, and perhaps there are others.  Each of us desires pleasure, and not pain. Yet, we see that maximizing our pleasure may require us to defer some immediate enjoyment and apply ourselves to uncomfortable tasks.  Tilling a field and planting a crop may not be pleasurable, and yet having enough to eat presumes that it must be done.   We can persuade or coerce someone else to do the necessary work and share the produce with us.  We could also simply wait for others to decide that the work is necessary for their own welfare, and then steal all or some of their produce from them.  We are aware that we do not wish to be coerced or stolen from, but we decide that it is no problem for us to treat others that way.   We would be acting in accord with the natural world.  The cat allows the mouse to forage for food and grow fat, then the cat can simple eat the mouse.  A bear may wait for bees to collect plant nectar and turn it into honey, and then simply take the honey for the bears own sustenance.  Generally, we do not see the cat as a murderer or the bear as a thief.  Many civilizations adopted the idea that work was a necessary evil, and best done by slaves.   Slavery is coercion.   An elite could enjoy the fruits of the slave’s labor while leaving only enough to ensure survival of the slaves so that the work could continue.  The decision as to who should be a slave and who should enjoy elite status is made arbitrarily, and is usually backed by force. These sorts of arrangements have been common enough over the centuries, and even in our present age, quite a bit of social structure seems to support a version of this.   In the 21st century, in America and a number of other economically advanced countries, there is a strong sentiment that it is not permissible to force others into a form of slavery, nor is it acceptable to allow some to steal the fruits of others labors.    Yet, there is also a strong belief that some provision be made for those who are unable to work to create their own produce.  Yet slavery and stealing are far from rare even now, even in the rich countries.  

One proposal is  that the moral behavior is necessary to maximize happiness among the general populous.  Yet, why should I care about anyone other than myself or those whom I choose to include in my inner circle?   Why is maximizing happiness a worthy goal?   Another idea is that the continued existence of any given group of us depends on all of us working according to certain principles.  But again, what do I care whether our race continues to exist beyond my own life time.   Perhaps if we presume that I care for my own children, we can make an argument for urging kinds of cooperation that will enable them to have a future.  How many generations shall I give such consideration to?  To the best of my knowledge, all will live and die, generation after generation until such time as some cataclysmic event beyond our control destroys the entire species.   Whether it is an asteroid hitting the earth, the sun burning out, or some other unforeseeable catastrophe,  it seems likely that only a finite number of generations will survive me.   And even if only three of four generations survive me, it is likely that they will have forgotten me and my contribution to their survival.  I’ll have no more meaning to them than the longstanding existence of sun and rain.  I will simply be a primal force of the past that contributed to their future, anonymous and unheralded.  

Logic, tradition, compassion.  All may be ignored.  If the one who ignores them is disapproved of by the majority of the human race, so what?  Does the majority presume the right to enforce their ideas on the majority?  Even if they presume that right, do they necessarily have the ability to coerce the minority into operating by principles that the minority eschew?

2.  There is a God, creator of the universe, and all things are permissible.  God has either no preference regarding morals or no ability to intervene if he does has a preference.   It seems we are in the same predicament as the previous scenario.  Why should we pay any attention to someone who attempts to coerce us into adopting the same code they choose to live by.

3.  There is a God, creator of the universe, who intervenes in human affairs in order to make them suffer or not at his whim.  He is all powerful.  His moral law is non existent, or non-comprehensible, to those he has created.  Well, now we may be blessed or cursed, but we are without recourse.  Have a nice life!

4. There is a God, creator of the universe, who has designed that universe to operate according to moral principles that he has communicated to us.  He punishes those who transgress those principles.  Even assuming we have been diligent in understanding the principles he has communicated to us, can any of us really claim to never have violated those principles.  Are there those among us who operate flawlessly and need fear no punishment?

5.  There is a God, creator of the universe, who has communicated moral principles necessary for peace and joy to prevail in the universe.  God ignores or forgives those who violate his principles.  Pain and sorrow exist, and will continue as long as the universe does.
No doubt some of us will do our best to operate by his principles, but we are aware that we will fail.  Some of us or all of us will fail to some degree.  Perfection is never attained.  In the face of perpetual pain and suffering, some choose to do whatever seems best to them to gain whatever momentary pleasure they may.

6. There is a God, creator of the universe, he has communicate moral principles that will enable us to live in peace and joy.  He is aware that we fail to obey to principles.  He arranges for a sacrifice at great cost to himself that will enable us to turn to him and accept forgiveness for our failures.  Further, he arranges for his spirit to dwell in us and guides us if we are willing to accept that help.  What is more, he has put a limit on the time that we will have to live in a world where we struggle and fail.  He will make all things new, including those of us who have failed to obey, but have asked for his forgiveness and help to do better.   This is the Christian universe.  All things are not permissible.  God has given us both forgiveness for failing to obey and means for doing better.  It all depends on our being willing to live in relationship with him, acknowledging his as our Lord (Boss, King, Ultimate Leader, etc.) and as our Savior (friend, lover of our souls, who is able to make all things right).

I once saw an interview with Richard Dawkins, an atheist who scoffs at the idea that God exists or is necessary to the order of things.  And yet, in that interview, he was asked if he would like to be granted eternal life.  No, he said, probably 10,000 years or so would be more than enough.  Even that may predicated on the idea that his pleasures will outweigh his pain and suffering as those 10,000 years pass.  Why stop at 10,000?  We may get 10 or 100, as things stand.  Is a 1000 too little.  100,000 too much?  Why?  It seemed to me that at some level, Dawkins is aware that things are not right in this universe, and to exist in it eternally would be hellish if their were no hope to an end to it all.

It has been said that this life is the closest that those who reject Christ will come to experiencing heaven, and that it is the closest that those who accept Christ will come to experiencing hell.    It is hope in an eternity where all is made right that can help us to endure this life where so much is wrong.  May God have mercy on those who are blind to his existence and his plan for us.  May those who are blind, make the necessary choices to enable them to see.

Our only hope for making a meaning contribution in this life is to understand God and his plan for us and to serve him as best we can, by his grace, using gifts that are all from him.

Friday, June 05, 2015

The Gun Debate Re-Framed

Gun Debate Re-Framed

Positions in the gun debate range from the idea that virtually no civilian should be allowed to own a gun, to gun ownership that is tightly controlled, and on to the idea that gun ownership is a right for every citizen and that few, if any,restrictions should be placed on ownership.  I will tackle a broader question.  How much military power should a civilian be allowed to possess?

Some social theorists divide the power of institutions into three broad classes:  socio-political, economic, and military.   In thinking of countries, we could see Russia as a country with a lot of military power, but relatively little economic power, and perhaps a middling amount of socio-political power since Russia has a large population, heavily influences a number of its neighbors, and has developed ties with some regimes which the U.S. considers to be pariahs.  In recent decades China progressed from having almost no economic power to approaching being the largest economic power in the world.  Chinese military power has lagged, but is growing rapidly.  Chinese socio-political power has been significant in Asia even at times when it’s military and economic capabilities were weak.

Institutions like universities, political parties, and citizen militia’s can also be seen as having various degrees of power in each of the three realms.  Likewise, each citizen in a country has a degree of each sort of power.  Voting in elections and spending or investing our money are examples of how we can exercise socio-political and economic power.  The ways in which individual citizens can exercise socio-political or economic power, and the means by which they may be restricted from doing so, are beyond the scope of this article.

The foundational issue in the gun debate is this:  How much military power should citizens possess?   Some would be quick to say that the citizenry should be restricted from having any military power.  Even were that desirable, it is not possible.   There is a large selection of weaponry available to anyone.   From bare fists to molotov cocktails, every citizen has immediate access to at least some means of conducting a military campaign.  History is replete with examples of citizenry who have utilized such tools as part of their campaign to effect change in their society.  The  Sturmabteilung (Storm Attachment or Brownshirts), were civilians who provided physical violence in support of the Nazi party during its early years.  At first their primary weapons were fists, boots, and nightsticks.  Later, as the Sturmabteilung grew in size, organization, and armaments, it was seen as a threat by the Nazi party and was forcibly disbanded by the SS (Schutzstaffel), which was originally a small separate bodyguard for Adolf Hitler within the Brownshirts. That disbandment was accomplished by murdering many  leaders among the SA (Sturmabteilung) and arresting hundreds of others.  Hitler and the Nazi party gained complete control of the German government, but  the SS remained separate from the regular German army and was seen as an ultra loyal enforcement arm for the party.  The SS also absorbed all police functions within Germany.

Gun registration laws implemented during the Weimar Republic in the 1920’s helped the Nazi’s to confiscate all civilian weaponry during the 1930’s as part of consolidating the party’s power.   The Nazi’s restricted gun ownership to those members of the citizenry that were willing to use them in support of the party.

Guns were not necessary to enable violent support for the ascendence of the Nazi party.  Gun registration benefitted Nazi’s in gaining complete control over the German government, including the police and army.

For centuries, the word gun has been used to designate weapons that propel a projectile using explosives.   In the current gun control debate, the the term is restricted primarily to hand held weaponry, generally divided into “handguns” and “long guns”.  The main reason for such a distinction has to do with how easy or difficult it is to conceal a gun about one’s person.  Civilian ownership of knives, clubs, and even projectile firing weapons like bows with arrows, are not included in the debate, perhaps because it would be so difficult it to restrict ownership of weapons that also serve as kitchenware, baseball equipment, and archery sets.  Also, the manufacture of knives, clubs, and bows is easily done by anyone with access to even rudimentary tools.  However, guns can also be built by skilled citizens with access to a relatively simple set of machine tools.   The advent of 3D printing will soon enable very inexpensive manufacturing of the critical components of guns, and little specialized skill will be involved in the manufacture.  All that will be required are digitized designs which exist and are easily copied and distributed.

We can, and have, passed laws making it illegal to use any of the weapons I have described to harm, or even threaten,  another person in all but very specific self defense situations.  A gun is only different in terms of the amount of power it puts at the disposal of the owner.  A very ordinary hunting rifle gives a citizen the ability to project lethal power up to and beyond a thousand yards.  I propose that the argument should not be whether a citizen should own a gun or what restrictions should be imposed on ownership.  Rather the question is this:  How much power shall we allow a citizen to gain easy, legal access to?   

I doubt there is a sizable contingent of voters who would want to see individuals allowed to own artillery guns, weaponized missiles, and all manner of explosives.  The debate is mostly around “small arms” that give substantial power to an individual, but not enough power to kill large numbers of people before they are prevented from doing so by governmental authorities or others.   Semiautomatic guns fire a projectile each time the trigger is pulled.  Highly adept users of revolvers and other manual action guns (such as bolt action rifles) can achieve rates of fire that are comparable to semiautomatic weapons.  Many hunting rifles use an explosive charge and projectile that provide substantially more power than the so-called “assault rifles”.  Opponents of “assault rifles” are correct in observing that the gun has been designed for ease of use in armed conflict: lightweight, modified grips, larger magazines, etc.  They are easier to carry and maneuver in combat situations, but are no more deadly that much more mundane long guns.  The magazine size, or number of rounds that can be fired without reloading, is another factor in the weapon’s usefulness, but makes only an incremental change in its lethality.  Fully automatic weapons fired rounds continuously once the trigger is pulled.  A common term is machine gun.  Ownership of fully automatic weapons has been highly restricted in the U.S. since the 1930’s.

Manufacturer’s of guns in the U.S.  must be licensed and are subject to governmental oversight.  The ownership of guns requires no license in most of the U.S.   Background checks for individuals purchasing guns from a licensed dealer are only required for handguns.  Private sales are relatively unregulated.

A completely different approach to carnage is the use of explosives, flammable substances, and poisons.  The largest mass murders in U.S. history have all been accomplished without the use of guns.  The Oklahoma City bombing was accomplished primarily with chemical fertilizer and diesel fuel.   The 911 destruction of the twin towers was carried out with unarmed civilian aircraft.  Powerful poisons or biological weapons are relatively difficult to acquire and deploy and have seldom been used for mass murder.

There seems to be little debate about  current fairly restrictive U.S. laws regarding manufacture and ownership of explosives, poisons, biological weapons, etc.  U.S. citizens seem willing to surrender these particular types of power.  But debates about laws relative to guns (small arms) are highly contentious.

It is not coincidence that the country with some of the greatest freedoms in other areas such as press, speech, and assembly, has been reluctant to part with the freedom to own guns.  We have much to lose if even the relatively modest military power of guns can only be used by police and armed forces.

There are many in the U.S.  who can’t foresee there being a need for civilians to mount armed opposition to our own government.   It has been 150 years since the Civil War, and there have been no other instances of such large scale combat to resist governmental initiatives as was the case with the abolition of slavery.   Much smaller instances of armed resistance occurred during prohibition in the 1930’s and during various political movements in the 1960’s.  The use of weapons to resist the government was extremely limited compared to the Civil War.  Furthermore, since the last large armed insurrection was in support of maintaining slavery as an institution, the use of weapons to resist the government during the Civil War is seldom seen as a positive development.

In the example of the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany, it is important to note that the party grew from a fringe group to totalitarian control of all of Germany in a decade or so. Some Americans find it credible that a similar threat could arise quickly in the U.S.  Such radical change might be precipitated by large scale unrest due to financial crises or military emergencies such as numerous large scale attacks on U.S. soil by terrorist organizations.  A single such attack, the destruction of the World Trade center buildings, resulted in rapid adoption of previously politically unacceptable changes to U.S. laws regarding how the citizenry are policed.  In the years since that attack, we have accepted radical expansions of how we are searched and tracked by government officials.   The government has gone from covert assassinations of foreign agents to very public use of drones to eliminate people seen as enemies of the state.  And such killings have not been limited to non-citizens of the U.S.  It appears that the Justice Department is even loathe to forswear assassinations of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.

We should hope and pray that we find solutions to problems of government overreach that do not require armed resistance by the citizenry.  However, in the event that such resistance becomes necessary, civilian ownership of small arms would be a very significant factor in the ability to mount that resistance.  Although the military and sometimes the police in this country are equipped with much greater firepower, the hundreds of millions of small arms owned by American civilians would still be a very significant factor in resisting tyranny.

Armed civilians can also be effective in preventing the rise of tyrannical groups intent on subverting our current government and the freedoms we enjoy.  They also act as a first line of defense against criminal activity when police are unavailable (when seconds count, the police are just minutes away)  or overwhelmed as in the case of large scale rioting.

Some argue that wide scale ownership of weapons is more likely to increase the incidences of violent crime or deadly rioting.   However, horrendous violence exists in many countries that have a very low rate of gun ownership.  Low crime rates and high security exist in some other countries where gun ownership is far higher.  Switzerland is often used as an example of high gun ownership, low crime country.

If we properly frame the debate about the ownership of firearms, we can spend a lot less time arguing over irrelevant side issues such as the difference between guns for sport and guns for killing people or guns for self defense against crime versus guns for self defense against organized tyranny.  It should also be clear that the number of guns in circulation in a society bears little relationship to the crime rate there.  The central question should be this:  Is it wise to enable the civilian population of a country to own effective means of resisting tyranny by governments or criminals.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When is Your Behavior My Problem?

When is Your Behavior My Problem?

We have an odd idea that if everyone would just “mind his own business” then we would all get along just fine.  It ignores the fact that my actions and your actions intersect in numerous ways.  Think about two people passing each other on a busy street.   How close you decide to walk by me can be a concern.  How loud you are can impact me.  Your body odor or even just the sight of you can change my day.  A man in a bathrobe swinging a sword and carrying an  AK-47 could smell great and walk silently all the way over on the other side of the street, but I would be impacted.  The swordsman might be perfectly content and not the least interested in my behavior.  So what gives me the right to be troubled by his?  He is legally clothed and open carry laws for swords and rifles give him the right to carry such weapons in most parts of the U.S.  However, if I didn’t call 911, I could be pretty sure that someone else would.  Take away the sword and the rifle, but imagine the fellow shouting at an invisible antagonist.   That’s a more common sight (well maybe not in a bathrobe) on many city streets.  We learn to look the other way and hope for minimal engagement with the guy, but we probably don’t call the cops.  Put a clean pressed suit on him and add a bluetooth phone headset to his ensemble and we probably will barely glance his way.

On business trips to Japan, it was common for school children to walk up to me and say “Hello, how are you.”  They were taking an opportunity to practice their English.  Once I was wearing western boots and a Stetson.  Grown men called out to me, “Hey Texas.” or “Cowboy, John Wayne.”  and so forth.  I wasn’t alarmed, I knew I stood out.  But when a lovely young woman walks the street in a simple skirt and blouse, she may be constantly assaulted by whistles, catcalls, and unwanted invitations of various sorts.  She stands out only in being female and perhaps more attractive than most of the folks around her.  I think she has every right to be disappointed, even alarmed, by the behavior of those who accost her.

“Minding our own business” presumes observance of a modicum of social niceties.  Violate the expectations for such behavior and you quickly find that you have attracted the attention and possibly the ire of those who observe you.  You needn’t even be physically close.  Post a mocking cartoon of Mohammed and you may forfeit your life due to anger in a distant country.

Navigating the expectations of those around us can be difficult when our thinking is clear and our education is extensive.  Years ago as I sat at at a sushi bar in Tokyo, a man next to me engaged me in conversation.  His english was good and I was interested in his story.  I signified that interest with a periodic “hmmf” sound.  After a couple of those interjections, he stopped speaking suddenly and glared at me.  “No hmmf” ,he said.  He demonstrated much more soothing “mmmmm” sound.   My German American roots served me poorly as a basis for politely listening to a Japanese man tell a story.   In fact, they served me poorly in many interactions in Tokyo.  Where I sat around a table, how I crossed my legs, pouring my own beer into my glass, and wearing the slippers (much less my shoes!) in the wrong part of an Inn amounted to rude behavior.  I had done some homework on proper etiquette, but it needed far more study than I devoted to it.  And even when I knew the right thing to do, it was all too easy to slip into old habits.

Mental illness, alcohol, and drugs can all fog a mind and make it very difficult to properly observe social norms.   The transgressions run the gamut from mildly annoying to truly alarming.   Each of us exhibits varying degrees of tolerance for unusual behavior.  Small amounts of background information may allow us to maintain equanimity that would elude us otherwise.  For example, knowing that Jimmy is developmentally disabled may enable me to ignore loud outbursts of childish glee or sudden fits of anger.   Understand that the man accosting me is suffering from dementia will likely cause me to overlook repetitive questions.   Knowing that someone is drunk may allow me to ignore slurred curses.

Minding our own business is not adequate.  Overlooking or tolerating the actions of others is also required.  Seeking to educate ourselves about afflictions that may cause others to behave oddly is helpful.  It also helps if we do our best to avoid making assumptions about why others act as they do.  In addition, even knowing that another’s behavior is intentionally rude or disruptive, we can make a choice to grant a degree of grace.

I don’t mean for a second that we can simply tolerate all behaviors in others.  It is wise to develop a clear set of boundaries that we insist upon in our interactions with others.  It is necessary to know what our options are when those boundaries are breached.  It may mean walking away, we may need to call for help, or we may have to employ some sort of self defense along a spectrum from speaking sternly to making use of whatever weaponry we have at hand.   If someone is coming uncomfortably close to boundaries we have set, it is better to respond sooner than later in hopes that a milder response will be adequate if it is timely.   Neither do we have to determine whether a law has been broken or whether the offense is the result of ignorance or malice on the part of our respondent.  Knowing such things may be useful, but they are not required for us to take action.  

Courage may be required to inform others that they have violated boundaries that we insist upon.  We may fear the reaction to our admonition.  But a failure of nerve is unlikely to relieve us of an unpleasant interaction.  We may seek to work up courage by drawing upon our anger and indignation, but I believe that is unlikely to mitigate a given situation.  It is better to make a measured, factual statement of what the problem is.  It is appropriate to raise our voice or be emphatic in a measure appropriate to the nature of the interaction as it unfolds.  An overly controlled response can actually be seen as insulting or provocative when the other has already expressed a lot of emotion.   But even a vigorous response can be a de escalation in a highly charged environment.

When is your behavior my problem?  It is when I decide it is.  However, in addressing the problem my obligation is to do what I can to be a peacemaker, to give grace, and to be ready to turn the other cheek if necessary.   

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

How Sick is Sick?

How Sick is Sick

Sick is pretty obvious some of the time.  The coughing, sneezing, miserable looking person is sick and probably very aware of it.  Other times sick is stealthy.  A friend of mine became very thirsty, day and night.  His favorite drink was Coca Cola, but he just couldn’t drink enough to quench his thirst.  A friend suggested he get his blood sugar checked.  She was a dietitian and knew the symptoms of type I diabetes.  Sure enough, my thirsty friend needed to start insulin shots right away.  

Sick can be tricky as well. Is my throat scratchy, and am I feeling tired because I’ve been socializing too much, or because I have the first symptoms of a viral infection.  Is that ache in my chest a heart attack, or is it just a bit of soreness from weightlifting earlier that week.  Worse yet, is that sharp pain in my back a pulled muscle or is it related to the misaligned vertebrae that a CAT scan reveals.  I have a tendency to hypochondria.  On the other hand, one night a few years back when my chest ached so much that I had trouble catching my breath, the doctor chastised me for waiting around until the next morning to get it checked.  I was rushed in for a CAT scan with dye injected into my heart.  That test was clear, but blood tests showed a high level of some sort of inflammation, and I had been having intense aches in my shoulders, back, and hips for weeks.  More tests and a trip to a rheumatologist gave me a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis: my immune system attacking my joints, also known as bamboo spine due to its unfortunate tendency to cause the vertebrae to fuse together and become brittle.    He was ready to put me on some very expensive and intense drugs to suppress my immune response (I was already taking a whopping dose of prednisone to damp down the inflammation and resultant pain).   “Wouldn’t something show on an x-ray?”, I asked.  The doctor seemed amused that I would suggest a test, but agreed to order it.  No damage at all related to ankylosing spondylitis, but badly misaligned vertebrae, as mentioned above.  Good news, that might be why my back hurts sometimes, but it’s unlikely to result in a severed spinal cord.

Kids get sick, but most of the time they think of it as a random, temporary inconvenience.  The  older I get, the more I tend to think of ailments as part of a growing collection of maladies.  Get a couple of oldsters in the right mood and they will sit and swap tales of a medical nature for hours on end.  Sick and old, seems obvious right?  But the same two oldsters may be running miles a day, swimming circles around youngsters, or biking mountain passes that might overheat the old family sedan.  

Is a kid with the flu sicker than a geezer with two joint replacements and a pacemaker?   The kid may be lying inert in bed for days and the geezer may be hiking the Pyrenees.

As hard as it is to set criteria for physical sickness, mental illness can be all the more difficult.  And the two can be confused or even entwined.  When I was severely depressed in my fifties, I lacked the energy to make it up a couple of flights of stairs without really working at it.  Physically I was a bit overweight, but otherwise as healthy as the proverbial horse.  Conversely, an engineer I worked with would sometimes feel so energized that he stayed all night long at work cranking out his usual work plus loads of patent applications.  He seemed far more healthy than me until his bipolar disorder took a swing south and landed him in a psych ward with severe depression.  Meanwhile, I was plugging along dragging my ass up and down the stairs at work, wondering what the heck was wrong with me.  Another friend realized that he was a new incarnation of the Christ.  God spoke directly to him on a very regular basis, and he was quite certain that God had revealed deep secrets to him.  He might have gone on functioning well enough except that at least one of the revelations involved a young woman who was deeply in love with my friend, according to his conversations with God.  All attempts to convince him otherwise, including a restraining order acquired by the woman, did nothing to change his mind or stop his attempts to contact the young lady.  It was pretty clear to everyone else that he was very sick, but he could not be convinced.

My bipolar coworker, my smitten friend, and I all had trouble realizing that we were sick, much less having insight into what the nature of the illness was.  These situations make me wonder about the oft quoted statistic that about one in five Americans are suffering from mental illness.  What if I were to say that one in five Americans were suffering from physical illness?  How could I have any credibility give the number of possible illnesses and the range of disability that any given illness might confer?  Of course, one might counter that we could carefully record all the diagnoses given by the various medical doctors for a given population.  But a few problems crop up.  When I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, but the diagnosis didn’t stick, how would we count that.  Not to mention that the same constellations of symptoms had also been diagnosed as pericarditis and polymyalgia rheumatica.   Would that count as three illnesses, or none since all the symptoms disappeared after a few months?  In less than a year I cycled through the emotions of thinking I had a life long progressive disease,  a serious illness that would only resolve after many months of treatment, a possible life threatening ailment, and ultimately nothing at all.  I suffered anxiety and depression as I considered the various futures posed by each diagnosis.  But I had already suffered anxiety and depression for decades at that point. Was I any worse off than when I had anguished over the various rounds of layoffs that loomed prior to me successful retirement.  And now that I was retired and stable on a regimen of medications, exercise, and relaxation methods, was I no longer sick or just in a sort of remission with side effects?

Sometimes we know we are sick, but others don’t believe us.  Other times we think we are well, but others don’t believe us.  Or we may be feeling sick and receive full support in our thoughts on the matter from friends, family, and the medical establishment.  And we could all be wrong.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Degrees of Freedom

Degrees of Freedom

Part of my engineering education was to learn that objects can be described as having various degrees of freedom.  An ant crawling along a straight wire could be described as having one degree of freedom.  Crawling on a flat surface would give him two degrees of freedom.  And crawling around on a basketball gives him three degrees.  For further degrees of freedom the math gets a lot more complicated, as does our ability to develop a picture of what’s going on.

When we talk about political, economic, or social freedom, things also get pretty complicated.  My grandson asked me, “Why don’t we just give everyone all the stuff they want?”  I think he  was trying to figure out a way to prevent people from stealing.  Sadly, even assuming we had the means to give someone unlimited amounts of money, objects, or resources,  we might find that what they really wanted was to steal something.  I’ve seen stories of very wealthy shoplifters.  It is likely that saving money was not their primary objective, even if they thought it was.

Of course we have laws that we hope will make it clear when someone is free to take something and when they aren’t.  We have other laws to communicate what other sorts of behaviors are o.k. and what aren’t.   I saw a police officer tell a demonstrator that if she blew a soap bubble and it floated over and hit him, that he could arrest her for assault.  Of course it is true that you cannot send projectiles towards police without having a pretty darn good reason.  However, blowing him a kiss instead of blowing him a bubble would be on the safer side of the boundary set by that law.  Tossing a knife could clearly land you in jail.  As for the soap bubble, well the criminal justice system would have to sort out if it was a valid arrest and an offense worth a penalty.  Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."   I don’t want to nit pick what Justice Holmes had to say, but I am pretty sure that if I swing my fist within a millimeter of a policeman’s nose, I will have consequences to contend with, especially if the context is a confrontation.   Judgment would be required for soap bubbles, near miss punches, or even for a knife that slipped out of my hand while I was slicing a piece of pie for the officer.  That is precisely why we have judges.  It is also why video tapes or credible eye witnesses are nice to have, but don’t necessarily end an argument about what happened and how it should be dealt with.

Unfortunately, simple assault is often one of the easier offenses to judge.   We can up the ante quickly by changing the charge to assault with a deadly weapon (baseball bat, walking stick, hat pin?) or assault with intent to do serious bodily harm ( cracked skull, black eye, or bruised rib?).   Most of us can walk around feeling confident that we are operating well within our freedoms.  Even so, stuff happens.  I changed lanes and passed a police car, well within the speed limit.  However, in the officer’s mind I “cut him off”.  I guess he had intended to change lanes just as I passed him.  Too bad I didn’t guess his intent ahead of time, because he gave me a long, loud earful after pulling me over.  Then he told me I was such a loser that it wasn’t worth his time to write a ticket.  I didn’t follow his logic, but I just kept quiet anyway.

When police yell at you to stop, it is generally a good idea to stop.  However, you might be forgiven if you continued to move out of the way of an oncoming bus, and then stopped.  Beyond that we move into the realm of civil disobedience.  The cop says move, but  you are on public property, like the seat of a bus in the segregated south.  Rosa Parks decided she should not have to give up her seat (in the “colored section” of the bus) to a white passenger who had to stand. That’s civil disobedience. It had a lot of consequences.  These days she is seen far more as saint than sinner.  Sadly, I grew up in a time and place where the reverse was true.

Rosa probably knew she was pushing the limit when she said no to the bus driver that first asked her to move.  She surely knew she was in for a hard time when the bus driver got a cop.  Believe it or not, she was arrested and convicted.  The appeal process dragged on for over a year until  the U.S. supreme court decided that the segregation law she had broken was unconstitutional.  History has been defined as that which happened before you were born.  So for me, this is a current event (I was 5 years old), while for you it might be history.

Going back to my grandson, he might surmise that were we to eliminate all laws, we would eliminate all crime.  I suppose in a sense he is right.  However, crime free and peaceful aren’t necessarily the same thing.  One of my pet peeves is the saying “you can’t legislate morality”.  On the contrary, it is the only thing you can legislate.  What other reason could there be for a law besides an attempt to promote moral behavior?   Not only can you legislate morality, you ought to think long and hard about what is moral before legislating against it.  Passing a law  that black people must give up their seats to white people when the bus is full  would be an example of legislating immorality.  At least by standards these days in the U.S.  I can go along with the idea that one need not always legislate morality.  The problem is that morals change from person to person, but the law is intended to be the same for everyone.  So we need to be pretty choosy about what we commit to law.

Fortunately there are plenty of things that we can agree on as being both immoral and illegal.  Rape, murder, robbery, and a host of others.  Unfortunately, passing a law doesn’t mean that people will stop doing those things.  It only means that they can be arrested and given a penalty for doing them.  Agreeing on suitable penalties seems to be even harder than deciding on what should be against the law.  And again, judgment is required.  No law can spell things out so clearly that the exact same penalty would be suitable for every transgression of a given law.

So back to degrees of freedom.  We have lots of degrees of freedom when we operate way inside boundaries of law, morality, and customs.   How big that space is that we can easily operate within depend a great deal on the time and place where we live.   Fortunately, most of us can discern the safe space most of the time.  But for those who transgress, whether knowingly or not, big trouble can result.  There are a number of things that can interfere with a person’s ability to judge whether their behavior is acceptable.  Simple ignorance of local custom can be a problem.  Having a beer in Saudi Arabia might seem innocent enough to those with little knowledge geography.  Walking around naked is pretty common stuff in some parts of the world, not so much in others.   Even the country may not be the issue. I can get by with a Speedo at the pool, but not in a courtroom.

Degrees of freedom is too simple a descriptor for human behavior.  We are judged on direction, distance, intent, and more.  Americans in particular seem to think in terms of more freedom as better.  However, they are pretty quick to change their mind when the direction, distance, or intent of someone else’s actions annoy them.  A curmudgeon in my neighborhood legally discharges a firearm from time to time (I live in the country).  However, lately it seems that he is much more likely to pop one off when his neighbors walk closer to his property line than he likes.  This is a real, ongoing issue.  Not easily resolved.  And it is only one of many such things that come to mind when I think about people getting annoyed with one another.

I am a big fan of freedom.  But as they say, it comes at a price.