Management cares… no, really… stop laughing!

Some days ago, in the aftermath of shootings in Texas and Oklahoma, the director at my workplace sent out a video message to all employees in which he acknowledged that we might have concerns about safety at our jobs, adding that we might be feeling stressed, anxious, and depressed under current circumstances. Speaking for myself, I felt more stressed and anxious and depressed after watching his message than I had felt earlier. Particularly notable was his comment that he feels like he is playing roulette every time he goes to a store or to his church. I assume that his reference was to “Russian Roulette,” although I do not know enough about his church or his preferred stores to be absolutely certain that is what he meant.

He emphatically made the point that the well-being of all of us who work in the organization matters to those in charge. He reminded us that help is available for any of us feeling anxious or depressed—counseling services fully covered by our insurance plan and completely confidential. He also reminded us to watch out for each other, emphasizing that leaders in each department should be checking on their workers, asking if they are doing OK, and making sure that all is well in their lives and that they are getting help if they need help.

Which is a nice thing to say, if it only it were true. I thought I might hear from someone “up the ladder” from me in the organization following that message from the director, asking if I am OK and taking time to listen to my response. No such question has been asked. Some casual exchanges are made from time to time in the building; the cleaning crew will frequently greet other workers with the question, “How’re you doin’?” but it’s clear that they expect only the ritual “fine” or “OK” in reply; they are not part of the emotional support team in the organization. I usually default to “OK,” since I am aware that the answer “fine” frequently is used as a code word meaning, “not good at all.” A couple of years ago, before the virus crisis struck, I sometimes borrowed a phrase from a worker at a store I frequently visited. His answer to, “how are you?” was always, “about the same,” which can mean just about anything—which was, of course, the point of the response. Under certain circumstances I have also expanded the word “fine” to the expression, “I’m doing just fine,” which I took from a song by Gavin deGraw called, “Not Over You.” Other times I have borrowed from Kenny Loggins and have said, “I’m alright,” which also was meant as sarcasm. But the point, from which I have wandered, is that no one has asked after my well-being, even in the aftermath of the director telling all of us that our wellbeing matters and that our department managers are checking on us out of compassion and concern.

Back in April I happened to be in another part of the building and crossed paths with the building manager. She asked me how I was doing, and in my answer I referred to the fact that I was involved in a couple funerals that week. Another person, also at management level, then interrupted our conversation, saying something to the effect that I ought to expect to handle a funeral once in a while, and that it’s not going to be all weddings and baptisms. That interjection seemed odd to me. The oddness only increases when the director goes on record as saying that our emotional wellbeing is important and that all our managers are watching out for us.

If I were given a chance to speak with management about how things are going, I might register a complaint about the requirement that we wear a mask at all times on company property if we are not fully vaccinated. Human Resources reiterates that rule every time they report to us that one of our fellow employees has been diagnosed with COVID. Most other places in the community have dropped their mask mandates. Most people seem to be trying to reestablish normal lives. But, a year ago, the head of Human Resources made it clear to me that I would lose my job if ever I was seen unmasked, and it appears that her position is unchanged.

So, no, when I’m at work, I’m not alright. As you might expect, I have looked for other jobs and applied for other jobs, but nothing has come through yet. I do the best I can, living from day to day, remembering that when the Lord closes a door he also, somewhere, opens a window, and planning to leap out that open window as soon as I find it.

And what about you? How are you doing? J.

Prince Louis at the Platinum Jubilee

While I have not had time to sit and watch the coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, I have seen a few highlights. (Such an event is not merely a once-in-a-lifetime celebration; it may very well be a once-in-history event. Can anyone else name a king or queen who ruled for seventy years?) The picture that remains in my memory is that of Prince Louis, the four-year-old great-grandson of the Queen, covering his ears and screaming during the royal fly-over at the beginning of the ceremonies.

That picture sticks in my head because I was once that child. I could not bear loud noises. Much as I enjoyed the Fourth of July parades every year, I hated those moments when the fire engines came down the street, blowing their sirens and honking their horns. I also was not fond of fireworks, and as an adult I have stayed away from firework shows. When the electric company sent out their trucks to trim branches from the trees and grind them into mulch, I was in agony. I remember running through the house, hands over my ears, screaming, just as the young prince was doing in London last week.

Other people—even close family—do not understand the pain that loud noises cause in some people’s lives. The prince’s mother, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, appears to be laughing. I hope she is not laughing at her son, but at something else happening the same moment. My family sometimes laughed at my reaction to loud noises. They apparently did not realize that I was genuinely suffering, that my reaction to the noises were not an exaggeration but were a sincere response to the pain I felt from those sounds.

Like anyone, I am startled by a sudden, unexpected, loud noise. When something shorted out at the power pole last evening while we were at the dinner table, there was a bright flash of light and a loud report, and we all jumped. But I got over the surprise as quickly as everyone else. Ongoing noises, even when they are not as loud, bother me more. Lawn trimmers and leaf blowers create a sound that resonates in my head, making me unable to read or do other work while they run. Music and conversations often break my concentration. For me, there is no such thing as background noise. I play music when I want to hear the music. I turn on the television when I want to watch something. When I want to work, to read, to concentrate on something important, I prefer a quiet house or office. Not everyone is like me. Not everyone understands the condition.

I hope that, as he grows, Prince Louis will find family members and other people who respect his reaction to noise. I hope that people will not speak of him as “spoilt” merely because loud sounds upset him. In general, as society becomes increasingly accommodating for people with “special needs,” increasingly aware of the diversity that goes far beyond appearance and language and culture, that there will be room for those of us who are sensitive, who cannot handle noise, who sometimes need some peace and quiet. The prince may offer an opportunity to promote that awareness. J.

And now, the news….

We forget that the news reports we trust come to us from the entertainment industry. Especially in this post-modern age, when we acknowledge that everyone has a bias and label our news sources as liberal or conservative, we overlook the reality that every news provider cares most about ratings and market share. Facts are facts, no matter who says them. A news outfit caught in a deliberate lie loses audience and therefore loses sponsors and income. What matters most about the news is making it interesting—capturing attention and keeping people hooked on the news. The past is past, and the future has not arrived. Only today brings in money for today’s purveyors of the daily news.

A good political fight is worthy news, no matter which side is right and which is wrong. A closely-contested election, with polls showing a virtual tie between the candidates makes a better story than a one-sided affair. Scandal always sells, and no political persuasion is immune to scandal. Celebrities are always news-worthy, because people always want to hear about the rich and famous. Fear is good: when people are frightened about things that are happening in the world, more people tune in to learn the latest news.

On the other hand, current events are complicated. Most people don’t like complicated events. Therefore, the news reporters try to simply matters for their audiences. Simple stories build audiences, and bigger audiences mean more money from the sponsors. Russia invades Ukraine: many things can be said about this historic event, but the simplest summary of the news keeps the Russians clearly labeled as the bad guys and the Ukrainians clearly labeled as the good guys.

Public demonstrations can be newsworthy, but bigger audiences gather around danger and violence and destruction. If ten thousand people gather in one place for one reason and twelve of them break the law, the actions of those twelve become the top story. Surprise and the unexpected also gather audiences—few people notice when a dog bites a man, but a lot more people pay attention when a man bites a dog.

Like the rest of the entertainment industry, news services will continue to give us what they think we want. They sift through the day’s events, hunting for the biggest stories that will grab the largest audiences. They sift through explanations of recent events, hunting for the focus that pleases the largest number of viewers—not those who want to think about current events for themselves, not those who want to deal with the complexity of the world, but those who are content to be told what to think and what to believe, who to love and who to hate, what to fear and how much to fear it.

At one time, movies tried to maintain standards of decency and appropriate material. When they found that more people bought tickets to controversial movies, movie-makers dropped their standards. At one time, television shows also aimed for decency and appropriate material. Their standards also changed to conform to pressure from the ratings. News reporting works the same way. Reporters may have operated once with a system of fairness, decency, and dignity. All those have gone out the window in the name of “giving people what they really want.” Our news will be more reliable and more helpful only when we stop being entertained by the lurid, the sensational, and the neatly-packaged simplicity. Stay tuned for more on our top story after these messages from our sponsors. J.

Giving thanks

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for many things.

I am thankful to have food available—tasty food, healthy and nutritious food, food in great variety, for a family feast and later a light supper and the next day delicious leftovers. I am thankful for clothing and shelter—shelter with flush toilets, with hot and cold running water, with control over the temperature of the air in winter and summer and every day of the year, and with a wide variety of entertainment available at the push of a few buttons. These are not the greatest blessings I enjoy, but they are blessings all the same, and I am thankful.

I am thankful to live in a nation based upon liberty, a nation that protects its citizens from violence, a nation that shows compassion to those in need. I am thankful to live in a nation founded upon ideas and not upon military victories or the power of one ruler. I am thankful for freedom to think as I wish, to speak as I wish, to write as I wish, and to gather with like-minded people. I am thankful for freedom of religion. I am thankful that other people are free to disagree, even to insist that we have too much freedom, and that such opinions can be discussed and debated among ourselves.

With that freedom of religion, I am thankful to know the God who created all things and still upholds them by his power. I am thankful to know the God who tells us why he made us, yet who pays our debt when we fall short of his plans and rescues us from evil, even from the consequences of our own rebellion. I am thankful to know the God who calls us to repent and to believe, then gives us power to do those very things through his call. I am thankful to know the God who gathers his people around his promises, keeps us in the true faith, and promises eternal life in a perfect world to all those who hold to that faith. These blessings outshine all others.

I am thankful that my employer pays me not to come to work Thursday and Friday but allows me to observe the holiday of Thanksgiving with family and with the congregation. I am thankful for a four-day weekend in which I can sleep late some mornings, accomplish some tasks around the house, do some reading and some writing, and maybe even start unpacking decorations for Advent and Christmas. At the same time, I am grateful for those people (including two of my daughters) who will be working during this holiday, caring for those whose medical needs do not take a holiday. I am thankful that professionals will be available if needed should a problem arise. I am thankful for the man who came to our house Thanksgiving evening several years ago because our carbon monoxide detector was sounding an alarm. He checked for gas leaks and other dangers, and he correctly determined that the detector was at fault. I am thankful that we were not in danger that day, and that we did not have to wait for the holiday to end before we knew that we were safe.

I am thankful that family will gather and will celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving together, even if some members will arrive late to the celebration. I am thankful that we will be able to enjoy each other’s company and that we will also be able to contact those who are living elsewhere and share the joy of the holiday with them. I also am thankful that, when the weekend is over, the children will return to their various homes and living spaces and I will once again have a quiet house for reading, writing, and other leisure activities.

I am thankful for my online friends in the WordPress community, those who read my blogs and comment on my posts, those who leave their likes, those whose blogs I read and enjoy, those who share a piece of their lives online and are willing also to let me share my thoughts and experiences with them. May each of us, however we observe and remember this holiday, find joy in giving thanks and have a pleasant and enriching holiday weekend. J.

Are you paranoid?

The following quiz will help to determine whether you are paranoid, and to what extent.

  • When you cannot find your phone, you ask: A—”Where did I leave my phone?”; or B—“Who stole my phone?”
  • When a law is passed which does not meet with your approval, you wonder: A—“Why are they trying to fix what isn’t broken?”; or B—“Why are they trying to destroy the country?”
  • When you cannot find the ice cream scoop in the kitchen, you ponder: A—“Did my spouse/partner/housemate get absentminded and put it in some unusual place?”; or B—“Is my spouse/partner/housemate trying to annoy me by hiding it from me?”
  • When a news show hosts a discussion about an issue, and the proponent of your side seems annoyingly loud and poorly informed, but the proponent of the other side seems calm, cool, and rational, you consider: A—“Why couldn’t they have found someone better able to defend my position—me, for example?” or B—“Isn’t it obvious that they are trying to shape public opinion by making my position look bad?”
  • When a worker at the store seems cold toward you and unwilling to help you (and that worker has a different color skin, either darker or lighter than yours), your reaction is: A—“This worker must be having a bad day and must be tired after hours of waiting on customers”; or B—“This worker is obviously racist and is prejudiced against me and people who look like me.”
  • The author of this post is: A—“Examining society in general and drawing material from his own life and experiences”; or B—“Picking on me and subjecting me to mockery and scorn, just as everyone else in the world keeps doing.”

A little paranoia can be healthy. Approaching a stranger in a secluded area, a person should consider the possibility that the stranger might be dangerous, that it might be necessary to fight or to flee. Safe drivers remain vigilant for other drivers who will do unexpected and dangerous things in traffic. Citizens should always be wary that government, big business, and the communications/entertainment industry will use their power for their own purposes and not for the good of all the people. But too much paranoia is unhealthy. Trusting no one, feeling constantly under attack, looking under every bed and behind every couch for enemies leads to unnecessary fear, stress, and anger.

Paranoia is often a symptom of other unhealthy conditions. Paranoia often accompanies dementia in people suffering brain damage due to physical trauma, degenerative disease, or chronic substance abuse. Paranoia can be a signal that something is wrong; but the signal is often missed by doctors. After all, who is going to confess paranoia to a doctor? The doctor is most likely part of the plot, part of the danger, part of the reason that one has become paranoid in the first place. Perhaps They are trying to make us paranoid so they have a reason to lock us up and take away our freedom.

Studies show that childhood experiences can cause or worsen paranoia. Someone who was abused at home or bullied at school may have been conditioned to distrust people and to assume the worst of others. When I told my mother that other children were picking on me at school, she told me, “They’re just trying to get a reaction from you. Don’t show them that it bothers you, and they’ll leave you alone.” Years later, my counselor wondered why I didn’t speak with my neighbors about their habits that bothered me—using loud tools for lawn maintenance early on summer mornings, for example. But my thought remained stuck in my mother’s advice: if I let them know that it bothers me, they’ll keep doing it, and they’ll look for ways to be even more annoying, just to make me miserable.

We learn to suffer in silence. Along the way, we forget that the things that bother us usually are unintentional. Other drivers didn’t install bright headlights on their cars just to bother our eyes. Those two drivers who block the street to have a conversation from the front seats of their respective cars—they are unwise and inconsiderate, but they are not purposely creating an obstacle for others. And that man who put his shopping cart right in front of the next item you wanted to put in your cart—he didn’t know what you were planning to buy. If he stands there, reading the label on something he might or might not buy, he is not purposely wasting your time. He probably thinks he was doing you a favor, getting his cart out of your way.

When we let paranoia govern our outlook, we cannot love our neighbors as we love ourselves. When we let paranoia govern our outlook, we cannot love and trust God above all things. If God is in control, then They cannot defeat us. We rest in his arms. We trust his victory. We allow his perfect love to drive out fear.

It would help if those of us who are paranoid could band together and support one another. Of course, we first would have to learn how to trust each other. For years, people have tried to organize Procrastination Societies. They had good intentions, but they never got around to holding their first meeting. Likewise, we who are paranoid remain isolated because we do not recognize each other. We need some sort of secret greeting, some way to recognize one another. Perhaps, when we meet a new person, the first step should be to say the word, “Noid.” If that person responds by also saying, “Noid,” then we know that the two of us are a paranoids, and we can work together to help each other as we face the rest of this world, all those people out there who are out to get us. J.

A message to Garcia

In the course of my normal work this week, I came across a pamphlet called A Message to Garcia. The pamphlet, contained two parts, both written by Elbert Hubbard. In the first part, he describes how an essay he had written as filler for his magazine The Philistine had, to borrow a contemporary expression, gone viral. The second half contained the essay itself, reprinted once again nearly twenty years after its initial startling success.

At the core of the story is a soldier named Andrew S. Rowan. During the build-up of the American war with Spain, President McKinley needed to communicate with a Cuban rebel leader named Calixto Garcia. (After all, the independence of Cuba from Spain was one of the reasons the United States went to war, although the sinking of the Maine in the Havana harbor would also provide a rallying cry for the war effort.) At great personal difficulty, but without complaint, Rowan took the message from the President, traveled to Cuba, sought and found General Garcia, and delivered the President’s message. In his original untitled magazine article, Hubbard lauded the “can-do” spirit of Lieutenant Rowan and compared his diligence to the laziness of the typical American worker. In nearly every team of workers, Hubbard claimed, the majority would be incapable and unwilling to carry a message to Garcia. They would hunt for excuses, look for someone else to complete the task, and do their best to shirk responsibility. Only a few exceptional workers would follow orders and would get the job done. What our country needs is more Lieutenant Rowans, more men (and women) capable of following orders, of doing what needs to be done, of getting a message to Garcia.

In his introduction to the essay (which happens to be as long as the original essay), Hubbard describes how popular his brief, throw-away scrap of writing had become. Reprints were circulated among business leaders and were copied to be passed out to the workers. The Boy Scouts of America republished “A Message to Garcia” for all of its scouts and leaders. A Russian visitor, visiting the United States to learn how to run a successful railroad, was given a copy of the essay. He had it translated into Russian and distributed to all Russian railroad workers. Some of them carried copies with them when they fought a war with Japan; copies taken from prisoners of war were translated into Japanese and then circulated among government employees in that land. As of 1916, Hubbard estimated that forty million copies of his humble essay had been printed and distributed.

Things have not changed much in a century. My children have had jobs in fast food, in health care, in engineering, and in other fields, and they have encountered the same laziness that bothered Elbert Hubbard. Most workers, it seems, prefer to do the minimum work required to take home a paycheck; any special project meets resistance, with employees going out of their way to do anything extra for the business or for the customer. One characteristic of the Salvageable family is that we get the job done, we go beyond the minimum expectations of our managers, and we take pride in our work. We do our best for our employers and their customers. We can be counted to get the message to Garcia.

Sadly, the entire story of the Message to Garcia is a string of lies. Lieutenant Rowan had no message from the President for General Garcia; he was sent by military intelligence to assess the strength and reliability of Garcia’s forces in Cuba. Essentially, he was a spy. But, as soon as he met Garcia, he admitted that he wanted to return home, and Garcia sent him on his way. Rowan was not just a spy; he was a failed spy who did not get his job done. What was worse, on his way to Cuba he had spoken with reporters, and his secret mission was described in the papers before he even met Garcia.

Likewise, Hubbard’s assessment of his “viral” essay was greatly exaggerated. Probably fewer than four million copies of his essay were printed and shared, not the forty million he claimed. The Russian official’s visit to the United States took place two years before Hubbard’s essay was written. No Russian or Japanese copies of his work were printed or distributed in those countries. In fact, most railroad workers in Russia at the time were illiterate.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of getting a message to Garcia was a commonly understood metaphor. Americans knew that getting a message to Garcia meant getting the job done, overcoming obstacles, and refusing to offer excuses. In spite of the lies and deliberate misrepresentations associated with the original event, we clearly need today a lot more faithful workers, men and women who care about the job and not just the paycheck, men and women who can and who will get the message to Garcia. J.

Civic planning at its finest

The main drive through town hosts a number of fast-food restaurants, as well as a variety of other shops—hair and nail salons, clothing boutiques, a car wash, a gas station, and the like. One of the places we used to visit sells hot dogs and frozen desserts, the latter consisting of frozen yogurt mixed with any desired combination of fruits, nuts, candies, and similar ingredients. We used to go there after supper once in a while to get a banana split or a chocolate concrete or a sundae, and we would sit outdoors and eat our treats and watch the traffic going up and down the road.

Three years ago some construction began right across the street from our favorite treat place. I felt a little bad about the construction because it was happening next door to a funeral parlor, or mortuary. I figured that the construction noise must be a disturbance to the families and friends gathering for visitations and visitation services at the mortuary. My dismay was relieved, though, when I saw that the new construction was designed to be one of those emergency medical clinics, the kind intended to replace hospital emergency rooms, able to offer quicker service because emergency treatment is all they do. What could be a more sensible partnership, I asked myself, than to have emergency medical treatment in one establishment and, if needed, a mortuary right next door?

The clinic opened and is getting lots of business. I have no idea how many referrals they are sending next door. But this summer, ground broke on another new building the other side of the clinic from the mortuary. I was interested, waiting to learn what would be joining the convenience line on that side of the street, and I recently found out that the newest establishment will be an orthodontist service. That makes a suitable neighbor to the medical clinic, especially since the long-standing business on the other side of the new orthodontist office is a school for the martial arts. So, if something goes wrong in martial arts class, they have an orthodontist right next door. If that isn’t enough, they have an emergency clinic next to that, and then a mortuary just beyond that. It seems like perfect city planning, the kind of row of businesses my children might have put into one of their SimCity exercises.

And what is on the other side of the mortuary, you might ask. Right next to their parking lot is a building with several offices, one of which is used by a law firm. So what could be better than to move from the martial arts school to the orthodontist, the emergency medical clinic, the mortuary, and then the law office? And, at any time in the process, one can always cross the street for a tasty hot dog and dessert! J.

Free to be stupid

ARE WE FREE TO BE STUPID? OR IS IT STUPID TO BE FREE?

Most political arguments boil down to questions of freedom and of human rights. Sometimes debate results from a conflict of rights. For example, does an unborn baby possess the right to life, or does his or her right to life begin only after birth, when it no longer depends directly on the support of his or her mother? Does a woman’s right to freedom allow her to do whatever she wishes to her own body—even to the point of killing a child developing within her body—or is her freedom limited by her child’s right to life? People who have made up their minds about such issues are sometimes unable to see the reasonable thinking that supports the opposing position.

As American citizens, we have freedom of speech. But that freedom is restricted. We are not free, for example, to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We are not free to threaten public leaders, or any person or group of people, with violence, or to call other people to attack them violently. Yet we are free to disagree with our leaders. We are free to contact them, to try to persuade them to exercise their authority in certain ways. We are free to support their political opponents and to try to persuade our fellow citizens to vote for those opponents. When support for a leader or a party is prohibited by law or attacked by powerful corporations that provide space for public statements, then democracy and freedom both suffer.

Part of the debate about freedom relates to the Social Contract. Citizens willingly limit their rights and freedoms to the government for the benefit of all citizens. The government builds roads, defines how the roads are to be used (speed limits and other traffic laws) and taxes the use of those roads (license fees, tolls, and fines for breaking the law, for example). Citizens use the roads. They might willingly break traffic laws. They might even avoid paying some of the required taxes. But, when those citizens are caught breaking the speed limit or driving with an expired license, the law punishes them with further fines and other penalties. We accept government control over the roads for the obvious benefit of safe and rapid transportation.

At some point, though, citizens begin to resist the restrictions made by their government, restrictions that are intended (at least on the surface) to benefit all citizens. People are required to wear seat belts and are fined if they are caught traveling unbuckled. This is supposed to protect those people and also to save the general public from sharing the medical costs of injuries to unbelted drivers and passengers when they suffer from a collision. Smoking tobacco is prohibited in many places, and taxes are placed on cigarettes to discourage smoking. Freedom to smoke is not entirely prohibited, but the government protects non-smoking citizens from second-hand smoke and, in general, uses its power and authority to discourage smoking.

How do issues of personal freedom and the Social Contract relate to the current virus crisis? For the good of all citizens, does any government (national, state, or local) have a right (or even a responsibility) to require all citizens to be vaccinated or to require all citizens to wear masks? Can these questions be answered by appealing to precedents set by the seatbelt debate or by the smoking debate? First, cigarettes can be taxed to discourage smoking, but no fair tax can be applied to people who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID or refuse to wear masks. Second, rapid transportation by car is a right that can be regulated by the government, including license fees and speed limits and even the use of seatbelts, but people are free to walk or ride bicycles or use public transportation; they do not need to travel by car if they dislike the regulations about transportation by car. But a law requiring vaccination, or even a law requiring masks, reaches beyond personal privilege into choices that should involve individual freedom, choices that should not be coerced by government rules and regulations.

Ironically, the labels pro-life and pro-choice that, for more than a generation, have applied to sides in the abortion debate appear to have flipped in the mask and vaccination debate. Regarding abortion, the conservative position is called pro-life because it defends a baby’s right to life, even before that baby has been born. The liberal position is called pro-choice because it defends a woman’s right to do as she chooses to her own body, even while that body supports the growth and development of a child. But now the conservative position regarding masks and vaccines can be called pro-choice. Citizens can choose whether to wear a mask. They can choose whether to receive a vaccine. The opposing position calls itself pro-life. It claims that lives are being lost to the virus, lives that would be spared if everyone wore a mask and if everyone received the vaccine.

Science is used to support both sides in the abortion debate, the seatbelt debate, the cigarette debate, the mask debate, and the vaccine debate. Once the debate has ended (as is the case with seatbelts and cigarettes), people remember the science that supported the winning side and forget the science that supported the losing side. While debates continue, people remember and quote scientific facts and statistics and observations on both sides of the debate. Science is used to support either side; science does not end the debate and declare a winning side and a losing side.

Freedom to smoke cigarettes, or freedom to ride in a car without wearing a seatbelt, might be described by some people as “freedom to be stupid.” When a debate is not settled, though, either side might consider the position of the opponent to be “stupid.” If national and state and local governments passed laws prohibiting all the behavior that some people consider “stupid,” no judge or lawyer would be able to remember all those laws, and no police force would be capable of enforcing all those laws. Rules and regulations generally address the most important choices and decisions, leaving people free to make a lot of decisions on their own, even at the risk that some people—probably most or all people—will, from time to time, make a stupid decision.

Because it is entwined with politics on the highest levels, debate about the current virus crisis has become highly enflamed, with both sides regarding their opponents as stupid. Some claim that thousands (or even millions) of lives are at stake; others reply that the freedom of all citizens is at stake. Some citizens prefer to live with a government that exercises close control of personal decisions, minimizing risks and protecting all citizens from any preventable danger. Other citizens prefer to live with a government that protects freedom, regulating only behavior that is so dangerous that it can rightly be labeled “criminal.” Inevitably, elected leaders must seek and establish a compromise that protects freedom as much as possible while also reducing danger to citizens as much as possible.

Given the choice, I lean toward freedom. I do not trust the government to monitor my life and to protect me from all the stupid decisions I might make. While the virus crisis is not the best arena to shape a national debate about personal freedom and government control, it happens to be the arena in which we stand today. While we await compromises reached by our elected leaders, I continue to wave the banner of freedom. After all, I have been taught to think for myself. I have been taught to question authority. Watching movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Footloose and The Matrix—not to mention Star Wars and Blues Brothers and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off—I have learned the important of remaining free, challenging the status quo, and defending my independence as a human being. That, my friends, is the battle we are fighting today. J.

Home again

 My family adventure of the last nine days contains three highlights: meeting my granddaughter, driving many miles, and seeing the Grand Canyon.

  1. Those of you who have met a grandchild for the first time already know what I would be describing. The rest of you might or might not understand. Either way, words fail to convey the most important moments of a voyage that lasted slightly more than two hundred hours.
  2. The voyage, from driveway to driveway, was roughly 1,900 miles, or a bit more than 3000 kilometers. We were in five states but saw license plates from 46 states (missing only Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Vermont). We experienced open highways and construction delays. We saw spacious skies and also drove through heavy rains in northern New Mexico and Arizona. (Who ya gonna call? Drought-Busters!) We observed smoke and ash from western wildfires. Our trip included mountains and canyons, hills and valleys, prairies and deserts and conditions in between, oaks and pines and mesquite and sagebrush and cacti (clearly planted in crop rows) and corn and alfalfa. At one point we drove through the region where Apollo astronauts practiced walking on the moon. (Only on the last day of our voyage did it occur to me that, at roughly the same time fifty-two years earlier, three men spent nine days in a little metal box so they could walk for an hour or two on the surface of the moon. They had no rest stops, no restaurants, and no motels—just a long trip in a small metal box.) We saw the Hoover Dam and Area 51. I stood—not at a corner, but in a gas station—in Winslow, Arizona. We should have turned left at Albuquerque.  
  3. When we told people back home that we planned a side trip to the Grand Canyon, they assured us that we would be amazed and astounded and awed. That concerned me—when people tell me how to feel, I often feel the opposite. But viewing the Grand Canyon was memorable and impressive. Rather than merely driving there and looking around on our own, we paid to join a tour group that traveled from Flagstaff, Arizona, up to the South Rim and back. Our driver and guide was a geologist who also leads hiking and rafting tours through the Grand Canyon. He drove us to six different locations on the South Rim, giving us twenty or thirty minutes at each location to view the Canyon and explore the area, while he parked the vehicle and then met us again, sparing us much of the hassle that many tourists face in that National Park. A generous lunch was included in the package, and our guide was able to share copious information about the geology, history, flora and fauna, and significance of the Canyon and its surrounding area, including personal anecdotes and observations. He mentioned, for example, that most of the deaths at the Grand Canyon are the result of heat and dehydration, not from falls into the Canyon. The guide said that an average of five people a year die in the Grand Canyon but that there have already been ten deaths this year. (A later Internet search gave an average of twelve deaths per year at the Grand Canyon, but that statistic included aircraft crashes and drownings in the Colorado River.)

For the journey, I brought books from my long-term reading plan and also drafts of writing I hope to publish. I found little time for the latter project, but I did keep up with my reading. Ironically, before going to sleep the night after we visited the Grand Canyon, my reading included the following selection from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five: “…and Billy was flung back into his childhood. He was twelve years old, quaking as he stood with his mother and father on Bright Angel Point, at the rim of the Grand Canyon. The little human family was staring at the floor of the canyon, one mile straight down. ‘Well—’ said Billy’s father, manfully kicking a pebble into space, ‘there it is.’ They had come to this famous place by automobile. They had had seven blowouts on the way. ‘It was worth the trip,’ said Billy’s mother raptly. ‘Oh, God—was it ever worth it.’ Billy hated the canyon. He was sure that he was going to fall in. His mother touched him, and he wet his pants. There were other tourists looking down into the canyon, too, and a ranger was there to answer questions. A Frenchman who had come all the way from France asked the ranger in broken English if many people committed suicide by jumping in. ‘Yes, sir,’ said the ranger. ‘About three folks a year.’ So it goes.” J.

God bless America

This weekend citizens of the United States of America celebrate the 245th birthday of our country. Plans are already being formed for our Sestercentennial, our 250th birthday celebration in 2026. Any year, the Fourth of July is a national holiday, a day to rejoice in the blessing of being Americans. We rejoice because our celebration commemorates, not a war or battle or military victory, but an idea. Our country was founded on the premise that all people are equal, that we possess human rights, that freedom benefits us all and is something worth celebrating and worth sharing with the rest of the world.

I am not ashamed of the United States of America. It is my country. I thank God for it, and I pray that God would continue to bless it. The USA is not perfect. Many times, we have fallen short of our goal of providing liberty and justice to all people. We cannot erase the mistakes of the past, but we can hold to our national principles and work for a better future. We learn how to work together as a nation, even though at times we disagree with one another. The America I love is based on certain truths. They may not be self-evident to all, although Thomas Jefferson once wrote that they are. But the truths of freedom, equality, and justice come from God, and these truths apply to all people, not just to some people.

Our human rights—call them life, liberty, and private property—are God-given rights. They do not come from our government. Instead, our government exists to protect and preserve those rights. If our government fails to do that fundamental job—if it ignores those rights or tries to rob us of those rights—we have an additional right to alter or replace that government. If each of us fought for our own personal rights, protecting our lives and liberty and property from one another, chaos would result. Therefore, we join together and respect a government that defends us from enemies abroad and enemies at home, from nations that oppose our freedom and criminals that would cheat us of what is ours. In defending our human rights, the government is consistent with God’s Ten Commandments, which protect (among other things) our lives, our marriages, our personal property, and our reputations from the sins of others.

In addition to protecting and defending these rights, the government also provides for the general welfare of its citizens. By common agreement of the majority, the government provides (on its own or with the cooperation of private organizations) highways and other transportation, hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, parks, and recreation facilities. Citizens willingly surrender land to build these facilities and tax dollars to operate them; then, citizens are free to use them or not use them. If the way these facilities are operated begins to infringe upon our rights as citizens, we are free (and obliged) to alter them or replace them. We elect leaders and advise those leaders about how many government services we require or desire and how much freedom and property we are willing to surrender for their existence. Although citizens disagree with one another about public services and about their funding, we continue to work together to form a functioning society, compromising when we must and convincing others when we can, doing what is best for ourselves and for our neighbors (never thinking only of ourselves and our individual wants and needs).

A truly just society protects and defends all human lives. Care for the young, the elderly, the sick, and the weak begins in the family. It extends into the community, especially into faith-based communities. The government might connect needy people with resources in their community; it might even supplement the help available some communities to protect and defend lives. As the government also seeks to protect and balance other human rights, a truly just government never overlooks the most basic human right, which is the right to life. When a child is born to parents who do not want him or her, or who are unable to care for him or her, connections can and should be made with families or other institutions who will provide that child with the care and upbringing he or she needs.

A truly just society keeps a watchful eye on medications and on other substances that may be abused to the harm of its members and their neighbors. The government does not prohibit substances that can be used safely, but it regulates the use of dangerous prescriptions, striving to ensure that they are prescribed and taken properly and safely. It prohibits all substances that cannot be used, even in moderate doses, without harm to the user. The government penalizes people who knowingly sell and distribute dangerous substances to the harm of others. At the same time, it connects addicts and other damaged persons with the care they need to recover from their problems and overcome their addictions. Meanwhile, moderate and appropriate use of those substances that can be consumed safely is not prohibited or penalized. Lawmakers must keep themselves informed of the latest research regarding medicines and other dangerous substances.

A truly just society protects its citizens from criminals bearing dangerous weapons without restricting the right of law-abiding people to own weapons. Once again, law-makers will need to be informed about what weapons are available, what persons are shown to be at high risk for access to such weapons, and what provisions can be made for care and treatment of those who might be dangerous due to poor health rather than due to criminal intent. No doubt compromises will need to be reached between the extremes of comprehensive gun control and unlimited access to weapons. These compromises might be accomplished on a regional basis rather than at a national level.

A truly just society protects and defends marriages, which are best defined as one man and one woman who have made a lifetime commitment to love and support and honor each other. Along the way, a government might help to preserve friendships without judging the quality of those friendships or interfering with their privacy. Where marriages do not exist, friends should be allowed to share their property with one another, to make friends their heirs, and to give friends legal rights of visitation while sick, representation in financial matters, and the like. Sexuality is—and should remain—a private matter, not a concern of the government. Sexual interests and preferences should not be material for public discussion and debate. Even while defending freedom of speech and expression, governments should be allowed (on a local level) to limit and restrict discussion and description of matters that are considered private and personal, offensive, or obscene. Families, businesses, and other community organizations should be allowed to block broadcasts and transmissions into their property of material that violate their private and personal values.

I cannot imagine, let alone defend, a society that encourages and perpetuates confusion about gender. The vast majority of people are born with information that they are either male or female recorded in their chromosomes contained in every cell of their bodies. They are born with organs that match that chromosomal information. Rather than permitting or encouraging people to attempt expensive surgery, hormonal treatment, and therapy to change their gender, society should help people to accept and embrace the genders with which they were born. The tiny percentage of people born with a birth defect causing genuine confusion deserves medical and therapeutic help. The rest of us accept the bodies we were given and help others to do the same. People before, during, and shortly after puberty already face enough challenges, including confusion about who they are as male or female. Permitting, even encouraging, them to contemplate changing their gender at such a time only magnifies trouble and confusion; it solves nothing.

A truly just society allows successful entrepreneurs to enjoy the fruits of their labor, but a truly just society also does not force other citizens to remain trapped in poverty. Taxes that support the work of the government remain fair for all people, not robbing the rich to give to the poor, nor lining the pockets of government bureaucrats. Assistance to the poor begins in the family and community but is supplemented by government assistance when needed. Such assistance may include temporary provision of food and shelter, but it also includes education and job training, access to information about available jobs, and community renewal. Employers are encouraged through government incentives to create jobs, to train and educate workers, and to provide those workers with benefits beyond their hourly salary. Help that flows from the centralized government is applied at a local level by resident citizens who perceive how best to assist their neighbors and improve the quality of life for their city, neighborhood, and the surrounding area.

A truly just society places few limits on the freedom of speech and expression. Deliberately dangerous and harmful communication is regulated, as are deliberate and harmful slander, libel, and other lies. Beyond these few limitations, governments allow communities to set and enforce their own standards of speech and public discourse. People can ignore messages that are obscene, hateful, or otherwise provocative. Open discussion of political matters is encouraged, not limited or censored. Artists of every kind are allowed to practice their arts, as their communities recognize and reward talent while ignoring and marginalizing poor and inappropriate expressions described as art. Companies that distribute individual expressions internationally are not permitted to censor their contributors on the grounds of political opinion or other controversial standards. Such companies have the right to limit obscenity, incitement to violence, or deliberate falsehoods, but beyond such limitations their control over the work of their customers is restricted.

A truly just society values all its members. Therefore, it celebrates all the cultures represented among its members. Each member of such a society is encouraged to have pride in his or her cultural background, to celebrate that background, and (as appropriate) to share the treasures of that background with others. Schools, libraries, and museums help to teach members of the community about its diverse cultures and their customs. Laws prohibit discrimination against any persons on the grounds of their cultural background, including their appearance and their native language or dialect. No culture is treated as better than any other; no culture is treated as worse than any other. Historic inequities are handled by enforcing anti-discrimination laws and by providing equal opportunity to all persons, beginning with quality education made available to all children in every community. Injustices of the past are acknowledged, but they are not cast as weapons to create or perpetuate war between two or more cultures.

The United States of America can be a truly just society. We began an experiment respecting and preserving human rights nearly 250 years ago. We have made regular strides in the expansion of human rights since that beginning. We have not arrived at our goal yet, nor will we do so completely while living in an imperfect world. But, as one of our Presidents has said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” We should love our country, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We should continue to work together to preserve what is good in our country and to cure whatever ails in our country. We need citizens and leaders who love and respect all that America stands for, citizens and leaders who honor all that America works to achieve. Together, we can take what is good, and we can make it even better. God bless each of you, and God bless America. J.