Hardly a Fortnight

I was minding my own business, which is a good practice in such a hyper-critical society. I recommend it, whenever possible. But, sometimes the business of others intrudes on our own, as happened a little while ago, when I was walking in my neighborhood, listening on earbuds to an audiobook. As I passed a well-kept house on a nearby corner, I smiled at a group of young kids playing in the street. The oldest among them was a girl, maybe eleven, twelve years old. They were tossing a football, and it brought back good memories of a bygone era. 

“Hey mister!” 

I saw one of them waving out of the corner of my eye. I looked in the direction of the voice. It turned out to be the oldest girl, a head taller than the boys with her. She was hailing me. She called again. I took the earbud out of my right ear.

“Yes?” 

The way she was waving, I thought she wanted me to go long — maybe run a corner pattern.

“Do you play Fortnite?” she yelled.

“Excuse me?”

She rolled her eyes. “Geez, mister. For the third time, do you play Fortnite?”

I’m sure I looked puzzled, because I was, not being familiar with any game that takes longer than a rainy afternoon to play. “What is ‘fortnight’?”

She looked at her friends, and then back at me. They laughed. “It’s a game.”

Not at all sure where this was going, nevertheless I bit. “What kind of game?”

“It’s a video game. Where you kill people.”

“Oh, a video game. No, I don’t know about that. How do you kill them?”

“With a gun.”

“Oh. How many people have you killed?”

She shrugged. “Twenty thousand or so. Maybe.”

My eyebrows must have raised a bit. The other kids around her tried to impress me with their own body counts.

“Wow. Is that fun?”

“Yeah. It’s a blast.” The girl tossed the football up in the air and watched it come back down. 

“I see. What do your mom and dad think about that?”

She shrugged again. “They don’t care.”

“Maybe they should.” I was a little anxious to think the parents might be watching me through the windows of the house, wondering why this strange, bearded man was talking to their children. 

Discretion being the better part of valor, and wanting to keep peace with my neighbors, I smiled and waved, then returned to my walk, plugging my earbud back in. I’d probably missed at least a paragraph in the book that I was listening to, subtitled “An Antidote to Chaos.” As it so happened, I had just started Chapter Five, “Don’t Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them.”

I started the chapter over and turned up the volume, resolved to go home and find out more about this (I hate to use the term) game. Turns out, to my dismay, Fortniteis a very popular survival game in which the player tries to be the last one standing, after killing off everyone else in sight with an assault rifle.

The times they are a-changing, as young Bobby Zimmerman used to sing when I was a kid. (Names change, too, along with the times.) Back then, my friends and I loved to play football anywhere, anytime — in a field, in the street, wherever. My sisters didn’t. In the fifty years since, something remarkable has changed. And it’s not just that today more little girls enjoy tossing a football with friends.

When I was not much older than those kids, my father bought me a gun. It was a .22 rifle. He taught me never to point it at anyone. Never even to pretend to shoot someone else. Never. Because that’s how bad things happen. My friends had guns, too. Their fathers told them the same thing.

We didn’t have video games, though. And we never had school shootings. Never. 

These days, it seems that there’s hardly a fortnight between such awful events as mass shootings in our schools and in our streets. Perhaps it wouldn’t take us that long to figure out why, if we set aside the remote or the mouse and really thought about it.

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The Infringement to Self-Control

On the night of October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured. It was the deadliest mass-shooting committed by an individual in the United States, to date. We still don’t know why it happened.

He must have snapped. That must be it. How else can you explain it? How could a single, seemingly normal human being suddenly become a gunman, determined to kill or wound as many other human beings as possible?

Gunman is an interesting word. It would seem to intimate that the gun and the man become one, as though the man loses his human essence, transformed instantly into some other kind or species by using a gun to commit a crime.

Well, if he snapped, so could anyone else who owns a gun, right? It only makes sense. We should do something to prevent that from ever happening again. Pass a law. Why doesn’t somebody pass a law? Do something to stop the gunmen. Stop the apocalypse.

The fact is, no law would have prevented it, and no law will prevent it from happening again. Maybe next time a hundred people will die. Then, that event will be the worst killing spree in American history. And so on. If not with guns, then with a truckload of fertilizer.

America has always had guns. James Madison, the man most scholars consider to be the Father of the Constitution, said that Americans were blessed to have the right to arm themselves, which no other nation on earth afforded its citizens, because they couldn’t be trusted. He also said that the liberty of a free people depends upon the self-control of individual citizens. The more they lose the ability of self-control, the less freedom they have, because more laws are needed to govern them. He was right.

America has always had guns, but we have not always had the level of relentless violence that we see all around us, every day. We can’t turn on the news without seeing it or hearing about it. We have become a society that practices violence, while professing peace. We promote violence as a way to solve problems and to provide escape from them. No more proof is needed than to look objectively at the music, books, movies, TV shows, video games, and even sports that we support with our wallets every day. Even a “good” hockey game must include at least one fight. The fact is, we have come to love violence in this country. No other culture exhibits such a love of violence.

Let’s face it. Anyone can be violent. Nobody is immune. We all have it in us. Road rage is more common and closer to home than we’d like to admit. What is violence, but the loss of self-control in expressing anger or frustration? With the continual increase in violence in America, it’s obvious that we’re losing the ability to control ourselves, to govern ourselves.

That’s scarier than any gun.

Unless we find a remedy for such prolific violence, we will lose our freedoms, little by little. By steady erosion, we’ll eventually lose the Second Amendment. Then, the First. Then, the Fourth, and so on, until we find ourselves in thrall to a despotic government. Our lawmakers and those in power will be pressured to make more and more laws to fix a problem that can’t be fixed by any law.

It is up to us, as individual citizens, to find a remedy to the love of violence in our culture. But, unless we seek such a remedy, we won’t find it. “Seek and ye shall find,” says the book that many profess to love, but hardly anyone ever reads anymore, and even fewer practice its teachings. One might readily and rightly conclude that the increase in the love of violence has come with the decrease in the love of scripture.

One thing is for certain. Neither the culprit nor the remedy will ever be found in a gun cabinet, empty or otherwise.

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Self-Righteousness is No Virtue; Forbearance is No Vice.

So much of the vitriol in public conversation these days stems from self-righteousness, or so it seems to me. My motives are better than yours. My ideas are smarter than yours. My feelings are more caring than yours. My thoughts are more thoughtful than yours. When we think this way, it’s an easy jump to say, “I no longer need to listen to you, anymore.” Unfriend. It’s that simple. Unfriend. Unfriend. Unfriend. Delete. Delete. Delete. Are you sure? Yes. Delete. Now, we’re comfortable among our own. The divisions grow. And a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Forbearance, on the other hand, allows us to say, instead, “I might learn something from you. Maybe there is another way to look at this. I hadn’t thought of that.” It comes from the humility of understanding that nobody knows everything about anything. Come, let us reason together.

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True Progress

old compass and rope on vintage map 1732How often we have been urged toward progress by the politicians, academicians, and artists among us. We must constantly change, or we die, so we are told. Change is progressive, and therefore, desirable. Tradition is regressive, and so passé. In American society today, we are constantly admonished to “move forward” on all matters, social, political, and cultural.

Do we not need tradition, as well as change? And is change necessarily progress? Some of the most beautiful cities of the world, despite modernity, have managed to retain their old-world charm, at least in part.

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be.”

Movement toward the future in haste, without regard to the past, is never progress. Neither is movement in the wrong direction. The renowned writer and professor, C.S. Lewis, put it best, perhaps. “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

More important than progress is the necessity to hold to core values, to be guided by them, or else we lose our way. If change requires us to abandon our core values and cherished traditions that define us as individuals or as a society, then we are lost in a storm of constant change without purpose, the way a ship is lost at sea without a constant star or compapexels-photo-70594ss to point the way to the desired destination.

Wise is the one who stands at a crossroads and considers the way.

 

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Ninety Percent of the Time

517FA7k2PALCormac McCarthy writes books that pull back the drapes to look full well upon the human condition. That is, the human condition unredeemed. I think he does it for a purpose, because his main characters always seem ripe for redemption. At least, they are searching for it. They are usually “good” people, surrounded by evil, who are looking for a way out.

In No Country for Old Men, an especially hard novel to read for its unfettered violence, a county sheriff in rural Texas during the early 1980s is confronted by an evil that he has never before witnessed in his lifetime, and never heard about from others before him. It is an evil in the form of a single relentless killer without remorse or inhibition, driven by a logic all his own, leaving human lives destroyed in his wake.

As he confronts this evil, the sheriff ruminates how his job has changed over time. In the beginning, when he was a younger man, the “old time” sheriffs rarely even carried firearms. And they knew the people they were hired to protect by name, often by phone number. Not the case so much, anymore. People come and go, and society is more transient. Yet, even in his current day, sheriffs are counted upon to do their duty and enforce the law, using the least force necessary and without abuse of the citizens, despite the few laws that govern their actions. Does it work? “Ninety percent of the time,” Sheriff Bell says. “It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people cant be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it.”

But those days are gone.

If what Sheriff Bell says is true, and I think it is, then what does that say about our society? We often hear some people say that things aren’t getting worse in our country as time goes by. They’re actually getting better. The violent crime rates are down, they say. Maybe that’s true. But the crimes that are committed seem to be getting ever more vicious over time. And that has little to do with the weapons being used, and everything to do with those who are using them.

One indication of the true state of things is the number of laws that govern us today, as opposed to twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago. We have more laws than ever before, restricting our freedoms and telling us how we must behave. If it takes very little to govern good people, and yet we need more and more laws to govern our society, then what does that say about us? Are we becoming a bad people, ungovernable even by the many laws already imposed upon us? Why are so many more laws necessary today?

Our founders believed firmly that people could govern themselves, but only if they remained a moral people. As John Adams put it, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Was he right?

Perhaps we are soon to find out. Fewer and fewer people attend religious services of any kind on a regular basis these days. The name of God and the person of Christ are despised and mocked more and more, rather than revered as they once were in this country. Our marriages and families are falling apart. Folks don’t even bother to learn their neighbors’ names, much less who they are. Our people have less and less respect for authority. Our leaders aren’t trustworthy, because our people don’t care enough to hold them accountable for their lies and deceit. Nothing like the “old times.” This is a true state of affairs, isn’t it? At least, ninety percent of the time now, it would seem.

Time for redemption, before America becomes no country for old men, or anyone else who might care about human decency.

 

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Life is Choice

Version 2Life is Choice. As Americans, every moment of our conscious lives, we are blessed with the ability to choose. We make small, seemingly insignificant choices, and we make large, momentous decisions. Each of those choices contributes to who we are, and who we become over time. We can’t control everything that happens in our lives, but we can choose how we respond.

Choices have consequences. I’m reminded of the often quoted lines from “The Road Not Taken,” one of Robert Frost’s most famous poems:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: 
/ Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / 
I took the one less traveled by, / 
And that has made all the difference.


”

In my younger days, that poem was a favorite among those who saw themselves as non-conformists, bent on being fiercely self-reliant, in the tradition of Thoreau. That bent was fairly popular back in the sixties and seventies. We failed to understand, however, that we had entirely missed Frost’s point. You see, the poem is not about the road less traveled by. It is about the road not taken, as the title clearly indicates. In fact, Frost clearly makes the point in saying that the road he chose, though he fancied it as being less traveled, was really no more or less desirable than the other:

“And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.”



So, though he committed to one road over the other based merely on his own perception, it was impossible to say which would have been a better road for him to travel. All he could say for certain was that his choice had “made all the difference.” But, he doesn’t really say whether that difference was good or bad.

Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” then, is not a celebration of the fact that he had sought his own, unique way, but a realization that he would never know which way was better, and a lament that he could never go back and take the other.

The older I become, the more I understand and appreciate what Frost meant.

 The toughest choices in life are the ones whose outcomes are either unclear or equally desirable in appearance. Isn’t that true? And, isn’t this the way life really is? We cannot know, at least in this life, that we are always making the right choice, especially when we rely solely on our own limited perception. All we can know is that our choices, indeed, will make all the difference. That’s life.

The ability to choose is vitally important to our lives as individuals, as human beings. It is no less important to the life of a nation. We are blessed to live in a nation that offers the freedom to choose. Here’s to good choices.

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In the Beginning

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So much depends upon that one phrase, doesn’t it? A person’s entire worldview is based on what words follow that phrase. Every person, no matter what we are taught as children or as adults, must eventually come on our own to believe what came next, or else we live without regard to who or what we are as human beings.  Perhaps some people do that without thinking, or even try to live without any meaningful regard to first beginnings.  After all, it is almost football season. What could be more important?

But, no matter how we might try to avoid it, sooner or later, we are faced with deciding — choosing — for ourselves what came next, because that will determine everything that follows.  And, nobody on the face of the earth really can know, definitively, what came next, because we weren’t there at the beginning to witness it.  And nobody, no human being, (apologies to Mr. Hawking) possesses all knowledge and can say definitively that science can teach us everything we need to know about how the universe began. (We still argue about when an individual human life begins.)  We will never, ever be that smart.  So, we must decide at some point, based upon what we are able to learn from the world around us and, more importantly, what we believe about what we learn.

Some believe that God created the heavens and the earth and that they have a purpose and an end.  Some believe that it all came from nothing out of necessity or by chance and that the end is irrelevant and meaningless. So what?  Well, our history as a human race and as human beings is a story.  Our individual stories are inextricably woven into the story of human history and the history of the universe, for that matter.  They are the same story.  As with every story, the end is shaped by the beginning.  And the beginning is what we choose to believe.  As it is with the universe, so it is with us as a race, so it is with us as a nation, and so it is with us as individual people.  It is most important.

Maybe some people don’t care about or lose interest in their stories, or are so harried by strife and turmoil that they can’t see or understand the stories of their lives.  Some decide that their stories are absurd nonsense.  Perhaps it all depends on how they choose to see their beginnings.

The stories of some of us are cut short too soon.  Some end happily.  Some end sadly.  But the greatest tragedy, I think, are those that just end — finis — mainly because the ones telling them never really decided on how they began.

We love stories. We especially love stories that end well. We find ourselves wanting them to go on forever. I think the ability to tell stories is part of what makes us human.  The story we choose to tell is part of what makes us beings, rather than mere living entities.  And every story starts with the phrase: “In the beginning.”

How does your story begin?

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