Monday, June 24, 2013

Good People or Bad People, How Can You Tell?

How can you tell a good person from a bad person?

It’s certainly not a matter of outward appearance, such as style of dress or length of hair.  And it can’t be a matter of ethnicity, culture, or language—as if someone who speaks English with a thick accent is obviously criminal element.  Nor can it be readily apparent by the kind of car one drives or by virtue of the size house one lives in.

We know this.  Though, our prejudices often belie such common sense as this.

Nor is it a matter of one’s profession.  There are good and bad people in all professions.  There are bad police officers as well as bad politicians and bad preachers as well as bad teachers.  And I don’t mean bad as in, they’re doing a poor job; I mean bad as in, they are more than willing to lie, cheat, steal, and even kill, or, short of killing, are willing to ruin another person’s life, to get their way, to get what they want—to take, to use, to dominate, to get to the top and stay on top—to win.

Now, look yourself in the mirror.  Do you see a bad person?  No!?  How about a person akin to Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way?  Truth be told, most of us fall somewhere in the middle, a mixed bag of goodness and badness.

One day Jesus was approached by a man who wanted to know what he must do to ensure that he would get into heaven.  He knelt before Jesus and said, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit Eternal Life?”  Instead of immediately addressing the question, Jesus reproached the man’s presumptiveness about the real nature of goodness: “Why do you call me good?” Jesus responded, “No one is good but God alone.”  (See Mark 10:17-31.)

How does this apply to us today?  Well, for one, when I look at the fact that our nation incarcerates more of it citizens than any other nation in the world, I have to ask: do we really have more bad people per capita than all other nations in the world?  No, we don’t.  Then why are we incarcerating so many men and women in our State and Federal prisons?  There is something wrong with the way we are doing criminal justice.

I recently read an article published in The Sun (July 2013) entitled, The Run-On Sentence: Eddie Ellis On Life After Prison.  It is an article well worth reading, especially if you are at all concerned with the amount of money we tax-payers are paying into our prison system while at the same time reducing or restricting funds to our educational system and other critical infrastructural needs.

Much of it has to do with how we determine who are the bad people among us—the no good, irredeemable types.  For example, we categorize drug addicts as bad people in need of punishment and imprisonment rather than sick or needy people in need of health care and recovery.  We all have our stereotypes.  We all have our prejudices and discriminatory biases.  But, it is not only unjust and unfair to allow such prejudices to determine our justice and criminal policies; it is also unwise and self-defeating.  If we allow injustice to prevail in one corner of our nation (such as in our criminal justice system), soon enough injustice will prevail in every corner (such as in our politics and in our economic policies).

Obviously no system is perfect.  We know this.  But let us stop kidding ourselves by assuming or pretending to think that our judicial system is the best in the world.  It needs attention and it needs fixing.  I know this first hand, for our church has a prison ministry.  Every week we go into a Pennsylvania State High Security Prison where we conduct four ten-week Restorative Justice Workshops per year.  The men who attend these workshops are much appreciative and truly want a second chance and desire to be better persons.

We on the outside however, often want nothing to do with them.  In actuality we are simply being judgmental, holier than thou, self-righteous, and prejudice.  Are incarcerated people really as evil and as bad as all that?  Some, a few, a definite small percentage, yes, they are.  But the majority, I think not.  So, we don’t need bigger and better prisons.  We should not be feeding into the new prison industrial complex (private or public).  What we need is a better social system that seeks to renew, recover, and restore those who are caught in the judicial system before they go into prison.  It’s actually cheaper than incarcerating thousands upon thousands in prisons.  Thus, it’s not just about locking up bad people, what really needs addressing is a bad system—the larger matrix of systemic injustice—class, economic, social, and racial injustice.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fathers & Sons, Father Son Advice

Yesterday we celebrated Father’s Day.  Have you ever noticed how Father’s Day just doesn’t get quite the same attention that Mother’s Day does?  I’m not complaining, I’m just saying.

Also, have you noticed that when the camera pans an audience, such as in an arena, at a game, for example, young people often hold up “Hi Mom” signs to the camera; seldom do you ever see a “Hi Dad” or “Hi Mom and Dad” sign.  It’s always “Hi MOM!”  I’m not jealous, I’m just saying.

Have you noticed that when college aged children call home, they always ask for mom first, and end the conversation with, “Say hi to dad for me” then hang up?  I’m not envious, I’m just saying.

And have you ever noticed that while Mom always seems to know what’s going on with the kids, dad is clueless, always the last to know.  I’m not criticizing, I’m just saying.

While much of the above may be more or less true, the “I’m not…, I’m just saying” part, is said with tongue-in-cheek.  Nevertheless, fathers do have a bad image in our society.  I know more men who readily admit that while growing up they have had a bad or poor relationship with their father than I know men who are able to say that they have had a great and positive relationship with their father.  Many will say that their father was either not there at all or, if there, was inattentive, disengaged and tuned-out, or worse, cruel and abusive, so much so that the kids preferred the father’s absence to his presence.  What is it about men and fatherhood?

I recently had a man-to-man talk with my adult son.  He’s out of college.  After graduation he had actually moved out of the house to his own apartment for a year.  However, he’s now back at home living with us, his parents.  For his generation, this is nothing out of the ordinary, considering our nation’s present economic reality.  In that sense, he’s a statistic.

Of course, as his father, I initiated the conversation.  What was the topic?  It was his use of time, his management of money, and his future?  As a good father, I was holding him accountable, and wanted to make sure that he was and is being responsible.  This is what fathers do—especially with their adult sons who are still living at home.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, he does have a job.)

For the record, the conversation went very well.  Indeed, I think it even brought our relationship to a higher level.  Which, I must say, is surprising to me, considering the fact that we (I especially) realized that the conversation revealed the fact that we two men, father and son, approach life with two very different sets of perspectives in terms of a Life Value system, respecting goals, practices, and norms.  I should also quickly add that foundationally, he embraces faith in Christ as I do; though even in this, he expresses and practices his faith differently than I do.

Here’s the point.  I heard him.  I listened.  And I understood.  I may not fully agree with what he had to say about his approach to life, regarding questions about his future, his calling or career, his lifestyle choices, etc. but I did hear him out and I gave him the respect he deserved.  Meaning, it’s his life, so I acknowledged that he has the right to choose for himself, how he’s going to live and what he does with the life that is given to him.  And he realizes that he must live with the consequences of his own choices.  He also understands that he can’t use or take advantage of his parents.  He knows and understands this.

I believe the conversation went well because I did not (A) try to control him by making ultimatums or threats or demand that he answer to me for every last little thing in his life.  Nor did I (B) speak down to him as if he were still a child.  I respected his age and adulthood status, young as he still is—it’s amazing, when you’re in your late fifties as I am, how much a twenty-something year-old still seems quite young and in need of a lot of maturing.  Finally, neither did I (C) demand or command that he buy into my value system and perspective on life so as to have him conform to my way of doing things.

I used descriptive language rather than directive language.  I did not direct him, as in give him orders, about how to manage his life.  I did however offer him my observational critique on what I saw.  I simply said, this is what I see and this is what I think you could do to accomplish what you want.  The end result was that the responsibility stayed with him, to accept or reject my observations or counsel.

In short, I managed to communicate without alienating.  He neither felt coerced, belittled, disrespected, nor manhandled.  I on the other hand felt confident that my perspective/advice was well taken.  Whether or not he does anything with it is a separate question, but at least I know that he heard me.  And, I believe that I also heard him.

In the end we agreed that our relationship is what is most important in this whole process.  Is it open; that is, are we communicating?  Do we respect each other?  Do we have a good, positive and growing relationship as father and son?  In the end, we thought that we did.  And for me that says a lot about the prospects for his future.

Monday, June 10, 2013

When Reality Bites, What to Do?

To live is to suffer.  Yes, life hurts.  There is pain and agony.  For some it is persistent, seemingly without end.  For others it is sporadic, a bit here, a little there.  Persistent and regular, sporadic or random, no one escapes it.  It is a fact of life.  Reality bites.  There will always be pain.  Only when your heart stops beating will you no longer face more pain.

Thus, it is not a question of how to avoid it; for that is impossible.  It is a question of how to deal with it.  What to do in the face of hardship, pain and suffering?

Perhaps we should first consider what not to do.

    We should not ignore or avoid it.  Or, if necessary, only for a short period of time.  Running away from the inevitable is like holding your breath until you either faint or die.  You’ve got to breathe to live.  Likewise, you also have to accept and face the pain that comes your way in order to truly live.  There is no getting around this.  People who avoid and run from painful situations and occurrences in their lives are stunted; they have failed to learn how to cope and grow.

    We should not turn towards immediate numbing solutions.  Physically speaking, yes, it’s a good thing that doctors are able to prescribe painkillers and are able to “put us under” when undergoing major surgery, for example.  Nevertheless, this approach should not automatically be extended to mental, emotional, or spiritual pain.  Escaping such pain by numbing it, as in turning to substance abuse or unreality and wishful thinking only makes things worse in the end—self destruction.  Pain serves as a signal that something is wrong.  That something that lies beneath the pain is what needs the real attention; and it needs to be adequately addressed and dealt with, if the real pain is to be alleviated.

    We should not turn toward self-recrimination, self-blame.  We all mess up.  We often hurt ourselves as much as we hurt others, if not more so.  Beating ourselves up internally and turning towards self-loathing only makes things worse.  We cause pain to others and others cause pain to us.  It’s called being human.  Accepting responsibility for our actions is one thing.  Self-flagellation and self-hatred is another thing altogether.  Don’t go there.

So what to do?

    Call on God.  Speaking of going it alone, you only have two choices with respect to your approach toward a “Higher Power.”  (1) There is no Higher Power, in which case we humans are in fact alone and on our own.  Or (2) there is a Higher Power; which is to say, God is, and God is there for us, with us, loving us and sustaining us.  Seek God’s strength, power, love, and intimacy.  Seek to be transformed and enlightened in the process.  “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.” – Jesus

    Get in touch.  There are others who have had or are dealing with the same type of trauma, pain, sorrow and heart-ache that you now face.  Parents who have a child caught up in drug addiction, women who are dealing with breast cancer, men facing the prospect of an amputation.  Find that community of people who are dealing with what you now have to face.  They will be more than happy to accompany you in the journey.  Especially include immediate family members you trust—spouse, children, siblings, etc.  Do not go-it-alone.

    Channel your resources and your inner being to meet the challenge.  Money, education, good health, your faith community, social networks, a sense of humor, faith, hope, and love, etc.  In other words, count your blessings; but turn these blessings into practical use.  Apply these resources (blessings) in ways that help you deal with your hardship, to help you get through it.  When faced with painful and heartbreaking events in our lives, we often make the fatal mistake of withdrawing from, dismissing the very blessings that are there to help us.  Rather, we need to accept and embrace the resources/blessings that we do have.  It may take courage and effort to do so, but so be it.  It’s part of the process in the journey toward peace, equanimity, and growth.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Deteriorating Infrastructure = A Deteriorating Nation

Our roads are cracked, potholed, and unevenly patched here, there, everywhere.  Our bridges are failing, falling, and becoming frightening to drive on.  Our public transportation systems are inadequate, irritatingly inefficient, and under serviced.   Our schools are reducing if not completely eliminating extracurricular activities such as art, music, and even sports activities.  Our Midwest and Southwest States are dealing with water shortages, farmers competing with city and industry for water access.  Our middle class is shrinking.  The rich are literally getting richer while… well, you’ve heard that line many times before.

I’m not a professional economist.  Nevertheless, from my humble citizen-on-the-street layman’s point of view, it seems to me that we are a nation in decline.  As I see it, the first sign of a declining nation is evidence in the state of its infrastructure.  The second sign is evidenced by the economic health of its middle class.  The third is the monetary policies of banking and industry—a question of who is prospering and how.

The sad thing is that it seems that (a) we could have prevented it and (b) could still correct it, but (c) have failed and continue to fail in doing so.  And so, it appears that we will be facing more severe negative consequences in the future.  And it’s not just a matter of reigning in the budget and spending less.  It’s where and how we are allocating the money that we do spend now.

We are far from being a poor nation, as such.  Neither are we an underdeveloped nation.  Yet our infrastructure continues to deteriorate, as if we are indeed underdeveloped and most certainly poor.  It is foreboding.

We want less government.  So we think cutting back on social public services is a way to minimize big government spending.  What we’re really doing is shooting ourselves in the foot.  Government is about overseeing the public good, managing public needs?  This is why I believe that the state of our infrastructure is a tell-tale sign that we are not doing well as a people, as a nation.

A nation’s infrastructure is not only about roads and bridges and public transportation.  It is also about educating the next generation, for example.  It is about sustaining a strong economy for the majority of its citizens, assuring a thriving and growing middle class.  And it is about providing safety nets for the weak and vulnerable, the very young, the very old, and the marginalized—to provide hope and opportunity for upward mobility—such as giving the working poor a real chance to rise above poverty-level living.

So, for example, as I see it, having a strong military, but a weak and deteriorating infrastructure, is like having a few hours’ worth of extraordinary fireworks for one night; once ignited and spent, the show is over with no ability to recoup what was spent.  Many nations and empires of history ended exactly that way, though they didn’t know it at the time.  They never do.  In other words, having lots of striking power with little ability to sustain any long term victory provides no security for any nation.  It’s a shallow strength promising only hollow victories.  That is to say that a nation’s real strength is in its day-to-day operations respecting the wellbeing of its people—and that means its infrastructure.