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Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Last night, in one of those interesting confluences of events, I found myself at my church, helping to mentor a group of 9th and 10th grade students who are part of our Coming of Age class.  This program, one of the crown jewels of the Unitarian Universalist religious education program, guides high school students as they contemplate their personal ethics, morals, faith, and vision for themselves, both now and in the future.  And, in an ironic and timely coincidence, the evening’s theme was on good and evil.

Is there inherent good in the world, we were asked?  Or inherent evil?  Or does it take people for either, or both, to exist?  Why do people do good things, and have you ever experienced them?  And why is it that evil occurs?  The youth, and we, their advisers and mentors, wrestled with those very big questions, all in light of the tragedy that had occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

After class was over, Ben and I went on to meet our nephew and niece at the movie theater to escape the weekend’s headlines.  There, we watched “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,” and I was pulled in once again to the story of Gollum, the tormented creature who engages Bilbo Baggins in riddles and struggles with his inner selves…part good, part evil…unsure which way to go.

Face of Gollum

Gollum, who struggles with good and evil in Tolkien’s stories.

I do believe — have always believed — that it takes people to cause good in the world, that good exists because of what we do, because of how we experience it through our eyes.  And I also believe that people cause evil to exist in the world.  The sick or twisted mind loses its way, causes pain and suffering and hatred to be visited on others.  If a tree falls in the forest, it must be witnessed in some way to be known.

So while Gollum, alone on his island imagines what he might do to feed his lost soul, it requires the presence of another — in this case, Baggins — to push him to action.  And, returning to the realities of our own nightmarish existence of the last several days, it seems clear that Adam Lanza’s warped sensibilities sought out the lives of innocents to carry out his mission in the horrible, desperate way that he did on Friday.

In the Coming of Age class on Sunday night, the question was asked:  “What have you done that was good?”  People thought hard as they struggled to answer that question.  My own response was pretty simple:  This weekend I wrote a letter to a very good friend who lives in Newtown, telling her that I was thinking of her.  And at church yesterday, I sought out a woman — with two beautiful children of her own — who teaches kindergarten in our town, and thanked her for what she does.

Someone I know wrote, in an email to others, that we might not be able to do much right now for the people of Newtown, but that we can be kind to one another.  True, we can sign online petitions to the White House, the National Rifle Association and public interest lobbies — and that is important.  We can write to our elected representatives and the President of the United States, and that is required, I think.  But if we do those things and we are pushed, in a moment of anger, to scratch the door of someone at the parking lot because they parked too close, or to cut someone off in traffic, or push to the front of the line at the movie theater, we might have missed the bigger point.

Child lighting candle Make no mistake:  I am no Pollyanna.  As my friends — and some who are not — will tell you, I have been known to proclaim someone an ass—e on plenty of occasions, and I certainly don’t get it right every time in my life.  But long ago, I resolved to try to treat people with kindness; to live out what I held on to when I was a teenager, about the same age as these kids who I now seek to mentor:  I chose to believe that people are, as Anne Frank once said, really good at heart.  And that we should try to treat one another with kindness and do good where we can, even in small ways.

Right now, as we thread our way through the thorns and blossoms that reside next to one another in the garden of good and evil, that seems like it might be a pretty important goal — and the one that we can all work toward, no matter where we are on our society’s power ladder.

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Years ago, I remember reading Lillian Hellman’s book, Scoundrel Time.  In 1952, Hellman, a peppery character known for being a brilliant playwright and novelist, refused to become an informer for the House Un-American Activities Committee, thereby taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy as well as many other artists and politicians who caved to McCarthy’s demands to rat out their friends and colleagues.  I had become interested in this colorful story because it occurred when I was far too young to remember the political scene…a time that led to “duck and cover” air raid drills in school and images of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table for emphasis.

Something else had happened during that time, too.  We were living in Akron, Ohio, where my father was the Director of the Summit County Children’s Home, working with children who were orphaned or abandoned, removed from their homes because of mistreatment or because their parents were otherwise unable to care for them.  My father had written an op-ed piece which the Akron Beacon Journal (the local paper) published, in which he applauded the day care programs that had begun to operate in the Soviet Union.  He suggested that our country might learn something from what was going on in the USSR.  Late one night, the phone rang and an anonymous voice on the other end of the line told my father that unless he retracted what he said, his wife and daughter were dead.  Click.  Dad was supposed to retract, cave, and get the message that the Russians were bad in all ways.

Designed to strike fear into the heart of the person on the other end of such a call, that story’s worth recounting today because so much of what I see going on in our country, in the political environment, harkens back to the early 1950’s…particularly now, at the end of the Silly Season which ends on November 2nd. A message is sent out and passed on and on, and pretty soon, we’re all repeating it like robots.  That’s how things catch on, and it’s how phrases and behaviors get rooted in our culture.

A positive example of such viral communication can be seen in the progression of the “It Gets Better” slogan through large parts of our culture.  As far as I can tell, writer Dan Savage was the first one to use it, in response to the suicide of Tyler Clemente and a number of other gay, lesbian, transgender or questioning teens or young adults.  The Youth Pride Chorus, Ellen DeGeneres, and many, many others picked it up, and it continues to grow.  Thank heaven for this.

But a not-so-positive connection can be seen throughout the political landscape, as tea partiers make comments about Obamacare and plant scary messages about how taxes will be raised and what else will happen if “they” are re-elected.  Life as we know it, they would have us believe, will disappear.  This environment does bad things to people, and politicians are at the center of the behavior pattern.  Not all of them:  I’ve seen a number, including Massachusetts’ own Barney Frank, locked in a tight re-election fight, who have stood their ground.  But Sen. Harry Reid is trying to hold on in Nevada (and the odds are very iffy, if recent polls are to be believed), Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Barbara Boxer in California…and the politicians tend to start changing their songs when they’re afraid they’ll lose a race.

It is Scoundrel Time.  John McCain may offer us one of the most distressing examples of this behavior in which someone will say or do anything to get re-elected. McCain, who was once the sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform along with Sen. Ted Kennedy (a position that won him no love among the conservative electorate) moved in a different direction this year. Focusing on border security, McCain embraced Arizona’s controversial hard-line immigration law and, in an ad, called on the federal government to “complete the danged fence” — three years after dismissing the notion of a border fence in a Vanity Fair article. Four years ago, McCain told students he supported repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military. But in May, the former war hero and Navy prisoner of war promised to filibuster any bill including that change that landed on the Senate floor.

When the going gets tough, too many politicians run, as one Worcester, MA, politician proclaimed some years ago, “like rats” to avoid the damage.  When the heat is on, as it surely is in the final days of the mid-year election cycle, way too many have suddenly reversed their original positions, having found a ‘change of heart’ somewhere in their souls (inspired, no doubt, by their reading of the latest political poll).

To go back to my story from the early 1950s:  after he received that threatening phone call my Dad sat up, thought for a while, and then called the police.  But he also decided that the person on the other end of the phone hadn’t understood the point Dad was trying to make – that we in America could learn from another country’s model of child care, not so that we could all become Communists.  He called the editor of the Beacon Journal and asked if he could rewrite the op-ed to run again in the paper, not changing the focus of the piece, but changing the words, to make the points clearer.  The editor gave him a go-ahead, and the piece was republished.  The police watched our house, I am told, and went through it with bomb-sniffing dogs.  And obviously I am still here.

Those were bad times, back then…times when anyone who uttered the word “Communist” was subject to suspicion and innuendo.  McCarthy was denounced, of course, when someone finally stood up to him, stood up to his bullying and his allegations and his career-destroying tactics.  Later the playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, overtly about the Salem Witch Trials, but really about McCarthyism, to point out what happens when one person influences a whole population to turn on their neighbors.

It was a long time ago when all that happened.  But from where I perch, it seems like it’s back again:  the name-calling, the suggestions that people are going to destroy our way of life. The scoundrels are out, running for office, saying what they will to influence our vote and build fear in our hearts.  I know that those words ‘hope,’ ‘courage,’ ‘commitment,’ have been over-used.  Yet surely those are the elements we need to survive this generation’s scoundrel time.

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