Saturday, July 12, 2014
Anna had Cystic Fibrosis. CF. Long story short, your lungs don't work if you've got CF, and after 23 years hers gave out. She spent a month in the hospital, hooked to a machine, fighting for life, waiting for a transplant. Even then, she had her same spunk. She made me laugh when we chatted - even though she could pretty much only mouth words. She asked about my family. She demanded to hold my child. She was as "Anna" as she ever had been. Nothing was going to change who she was. I know some strong-willed people (mostly all of the women in my family), but I don't think any of them matched Anna.
It wasn't just about being strong-willed though. Anna had style. She lived with what I can only describe as verve. There was a zeal for every thing she was doing. When she loved something or someone, she loved them to the fullest. That probably applies to when she hated things too. She knew how to live in the moment. You always knew where you stood with Anna. She had fun. She had fun. There's approximately a million photos of Anna, and she is having the best time of her life in every single one of them. Her life was full of best times.
And yet, there was the CF. It was a constant battle. I can honestly say that I fall into the category of people who didn't quite ever realize how tough it was. I'm generally oblivious, but I chalk a lot of that up to Anna. She probably tried to hide some of the unpleasantness of CF away from people, but I think the bigger thing was the style she lived with. A person living with such verve wouldn't seem to be struggling.
2nd Timothy 4 was read at her funeral. The relevant, familiar, part has never been far from my mind this past month: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."
One of the things that sticks out to me is that the verse doesn't say "I have won the good fight." Winning and losing are immaterial. Because "the good fight" isn't about the outcome - the outcome is set at birth - it's about the style you bring to the fight. "Good form" and all that. Anna epitomizes that good fight. She lived with grace and style and verve. That's the very idea.
There have been tributes aplenty throughout this month, but one of my favorites comes from a mom whose daughter ran cross country with Anna (yes, she ran cross country, despite the whole "inability to breath thing"):
I remember the first race of the year. It was hot. It was a tough course. And here's this tiny girl, lining up with all the rest. All of the moms were amazed. We wondered how far she'd make it. Would it be a half mile? A mile? More? We knew she had CF. We were all rooting for her. A half mile came, and she kept running. A mile, and she kept going. We saw her coming towards the finish line, and our hearts were in our throats. She kept going, until she finished the race, and then, for the first time since the start of the race, we all took a breath.
"I have finished the race."
Friday, November 04, 2011
The man looked more human in the gray morning rain, still and cold. In life he had been more voice than person, an idea standing on the park corner, shouting for all to hear. Davis had passed him every day, once on the way to work, once on the way home.
“Isaiah says ‘The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart!’ Listen to the dead! They speak truths!”
The detective tried to ignore him. Something – the voice, the idea – had made him uncomfortable, scared him even. Some folks got really into the death cards. Others, like the street preacher, tried to fight the inevitable. Folks could think what they wanted. It didn’t matter much to Davis, the cards were never wrong and they made his job easier on the good days.
This wasn’t a good day. The preacher lay dead on the sidewalk, his steel blue eyes reflecting back the sympathy that rushed from the detective. Davis had only ever seen the caricature before. The tattered brown cloak, the wide brimmed black hat, he stood on his little wooden box, reading scriptures, sun or rain. Now, for the first time, Davis saw the man. His face was worn and tired. He hadn’t been scary; he had been frail. Davis reached down, saying a quick prayer as he closed the man’s eyes. It was the only time he ever prayed, standing over a body.
The detective jumped.
“Davis, you S.O.B., I haven’t seen you in a year!” A tall, skinny man with an impossibly large grin walked toward the detective.
“Collison. How you been?” The two shook hands.
“Not bad, not bad, not bad. They didn’t put you on this case, did they? What’d you do, knock up the mayor’s daughter?”
“I hear someone beat me to it. Congrats.”
“Thanks man. We’re baptizing next week, you wanna come?”
“That’s not really my… we’ll see.”
“So seriously, are they putting you on this one?” continued Collison.
“Nah, I’m just on my way in.”
“You hit the crime scene before the office? That’s a sign. Go back to bed.”
“I dunno.” Davis paused, then, tugging slightly on Collison’s elbow with a finger, lowered his tone, “What are you looking at here?”
Collison checked his periphery before responding. “Whoever did it had it planned. And they left a death card.”
“What did it say?”
A few days later, Davis still hadn’t gotten the preacher out of his mind. He seemed so much taller when he’d been shouting those verses. The box. Had to be the box. Still, Davis figured he’d better look into it. He made sure to run into Collison the next morning.
“Been working a finger print from the scene. He had a prayer book from St. Patrick’s Cathedral; prayers for the dead. Eerie, right? The print belongs to a guy named Manthey. William Manthey.”
“Anything on else on the martyr card?”
“That had a print too. Jolene Beck. Deceased.”
“Do you know what the word martyr originally meant?”
“I figured it was someone who died for their faith.”
“Nope. Originally it meant ‘witness.’ Christians took it that next step, said by dying for your beliefs you testified to the truth of your faith.”
“So did the martyr card belong to the preacher?
“Low priority on John Does, so no results yet.”
“Yeah, I get it. Thanks.”
Manthey’s offices weren’t far. They took up most of the 62nd floor, and Davis waited, staring out through the thin fog to the ground below. Manthey stepped out to greet him. He was a large, robust man.
“Up so high,” Davis mused, turning his head towards Manthey, “you’re quite removed.”
“Sometimes a little perspective is needed, if you’re going to save mankind.” Manthey paused as Davis moved from the window, “And sometimes you need to reach them more directly. Shall we step into my office?”
The office was crisp, with cherry décor and a desk befitting a man of Manthey’s stature. They sat in two leather couches, away from the desk.
“What can I do for you detective?”
“We found your print at a crime scene.”
“A street preacher.”
“And you think I did it?”
“No. We’re just looking for an explanation. They found a prayer book from a nearby church. Had your print on it.”
“I go to church from time to time. Sometimes I use the prayer books they have there. I leave them in the church when I go. He must have taken one that I used.”
“Probably. Sorry to bother you. Just checking out a lead.”
“I understand. Let me walk you out.” The two men stood up and shook hands. Back in the lobby the fog outside the windows had grown thicker. Davis couldn’t see to the ground below, but something jogged in his memory.
“Say, what is it you do here? You mentioned saving mankind.”
“Healthcare. Medical devices, mostly.”
“I see. It must pay pretty well.”
“This?” He gestured to the sweeping office space, “No, this is all the product of good fortune. I worked with the inventors of the Death Machine. Ground floor, so to speak. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
“Better lucky than good, huh?”
Davis wondered if it could be a coincidence: one of the Death Machine founders and a man who preached against them? They had to be connected. Manthey must have been protecting his investment by silencing opposition. Hard to pin it on him though.
Davis hailed a cab across town. He was going to check out Ms. Beck’s tombstone, though what she could tell him he really didn’t know. It was one of those old grave yards – for the old families – and still divided by parish. One area was set aside for the Episcopals from St. John’s, one for those from St. Matthew’s, one area for the Methodists, another for the First Presbyterians. There was just one other pair of mourners in the cemetery; St. Matthew’s flock.
Jolene Beck was buried in the Catholic part of the cemetery: St. Patrick’s. Davis’ radar pinged. It was a nice stone, and well kept. “Beloved wife. The Lord’s faithful servant.” Sounded holy. Davis said a prayer. This was a busy week for him and God. The flowers at the stone were no more than a few days old. Davis saw a chapel at the end of the yard, and made his way inside. He flipped through the guest book, almost absent-mindedly. There it was. Three days ago. Jolene Beck had a visitor the day after the murder. William Manthey, husband.
“Davis, you can’t question him again. He’s lawyered up.”
“Collison, he killed the man!”
“You can’t prove it.”
“His print’s on the prayer book. His wife’s print is on the martyr card. He visited the grave the day after the murder. And now you tell me she was a murdered too? It’s no coincidence.”
“You spooked him when you started asking questions. You shouldn’t have been up there. Let me take this. We’ve got some time. He’s still a John Doe, no friends or family pushing us for an arrest.”
“A life’s a life.”
“I know, I know, I know. Now will you let me do my job?”
“Fine. What can you tell me?”
“John Doe’s card came back.”
“Yeah. Don’t worry about this, man. I got it.”
Davis decided to stake out St. Patrick’s anyway. Collison was good at his job, but Davis wanted answers. He didn’t have to wait long. Turned out Manthey visited the church a couple times a week. It was Davis’ lucky day, and he followed Manthey in.
The church was lit distantly, casting shadows across the cavernous room. Directly in front of Davis on the altar shone a crucifix, the only illuminated object in the church, a beacon for believers. Davis genuflected reflexively, his Catholic childhood pouring back over him. From the corner of his eye he saw Manthey duck into a side chapel, and his moment of relapsing faith evaporated as he tracked down his target.
“Tell me what happened.”
“I’ve got an attorney.”
“I’m not here on business.”
“I just need to know.”
“Are you a man of faith, Detective?”
“There was a time.”
“Walk with me.”
The two men stepped out a side door and into a narrow hallway. As they walked, Manthey continued.
“You realize that none of this is admissible.”
“Don’t worry. No one’s looking out for John Doe anyway.”
“Timothy. His name was Timothy Vinson.”
“Who was he?”
“A friend of Jolene’s. They were in the same bible study. My wife was very devout. I was always lukewarm with religion, but she was a true Catholic. She told me the Death Machine was a bad idea. I fought to convince her otherwise. I never got anywhere. Then one day, Timothy sits her down and asks about what I do. Suddenly, she’s interested.”
The two men turned a corner and continued moving away from the main sanctuary. Manthey kept talking.
“‘How does it work?’ she asks. I tell her we don’t know, it just does. ‘Can it test people who are already dead?’ she wants to know. I tell her it works on everyone, living or dead. ‘What about things that aren’t blood?’ I tell her the only thing it works on is blood. Everything else just comes back negative. On and on she goes with the questions. Finally she asks me if she can test someone. So I say sure and set it up for her. Why not let her test?”
Manthey hooked a swift right. Davis was able to make out a door at the end of the darkened hallway, with a soft glow of light from underneath.
“The problem was, she didn’t test someone,” Manthey continued, putting an emphasis on the last syllable, “At least, not in the traditional sense.”
“Then who did she test?” Davis’ voice had an apprehensive creak to it. They reached the end of the hallway and Manthey put his hand to the heavy oak door, swinging it inward.
“She tested Jesus.”
The men stood in a small sacristy where a priest in white robes huddled over a counter. He looked up and smiled.
“Who’s your friend Will?”
“Detective Davis,” answered Manthey. He stepped over to where the priest was working and snared a small vial. He held it up for Davis to see.
“This is what she tested. The wine. It should have come back negative, but it didn’t. First non-blood sample that ever produced a card. It said crucifixion. You know about transubstantiation? It was Jesus’ blood. I don’t expect you to believe me. I didn’t believe either. But we’ve tested it again and again. And every time we test the wine, every single time, no matter what church it comes from, the machine says ‘crucifixion.’ Faith isn’t so hard to find when the answer is printed on a card. Father will give you the wine. You take it yourself to be tested.”
“You can’t be serious.”
The priest stepped toward the detective, vial in hand. He held it up, and looked Davis unflinchingly in the eye.
“The blood of Christ.”
“The blood of Christ.”
“Amen father. Amen.” Davis stood there, vial in hand, dumbstruck by what he’d heard. Manthey took a few more vials from the priest, and the two men exited the room.
Back in the dark hallway, Manthey picked up the story again.
“After the results, Jolene thought the machine was a tool from God. She wanted to tell the world. She thought it would bring people to Jesus. I wasn’t so sure. She had resisted the machine at first, but now she was the biggest supporter you could find. Until she got her own death card.” Manthey paused. There was an emotion in his voice that had been absent through much of his narration.
“What did the card say?” pushed Davis, already knowing the answer.
“It said martyr.”
“So what happened? How did she die?”
“Timothy. He killed her. He killed her.” Tears welled in Manthey’s eyes. “When she got her card back, she was afraid. She didn’t want to die a martyr. That word means different things to different people. Jolene thought it meant she would suffer, and she was afraid.” Manthey pulled a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit and wiped away a tear.
“What did Timothy say about it?” asked Davis.
“He said a martyr was someone who brought others to Christ through their death. He wanted her to die. For the church. So he forced the issue.”
By this point the two of them had reached the outer doors. They pushed their way through and stood in the church yard, beneath the bell tower.
“The problem was, he didn’t kill her for her faith. They believed the same things. When he killed her it meant she wasn’t a martyr. But the machine is never wrong. So I blackmailed him. Maybe Timothy was right about what it meant to be a martyr. Maybe it meant bringing others to Christ. Her death had to lead to conversion, in order for the card to be right. That’s why he was on the sidewalk. He was finishing her mission.”
“So why kill him?”
“Then who did?”
Manthey nodded back towards the sacristy.
“It wasn’t working. People thought he was a lunatic. Three years standing out there and not a single soul stopped to talk to him. There were no conversions. Jolene wasn’t a martyr. The card was wrong. And if Jolene’s card was wrong…”
Davis finished the thought, “Then so was Jesus’ card.”
It all made sense. The priest wanted to keep the faith.
“I can’t explain it,” said Manthey, “The machine has never been wrong. I have to believe something divine is happening. I’ve got faith; I just don’t know what to believe.”
“The wine really says crucifixion?”
A few weeks later, when the case was pushed to the bottom of Collison’s desk and Davis had willed himself to let the preacher go, the results arrived, almost unexpectedly, in the mail. There they were, plain as day. One card – the wine – said “Crucifixion.” The other card - his blood – read “Martyr.” Davis sat for a moment, stunned not by the words on the cards, but by his lack of surprise. Then, grabbing his coat, he headed for the door.
“Hey Davis!” called his friend, “Where you going?”
“I’m going to church. You want to come?”
“Church in the middle of the day? Didn’t think you were a man of faith.”
Davis laughed, “What can I say? I believe.”
“Amen.” Collison smiled his impossible grin. “Let me get my coat.”
Saturday, October 15, 2011
When she was born, my daughter had a small bump on her backside that looked kind of funny. It was a concerning spot, since it was right on the lower part of her spine. The doctors decided to do an ultrasound there in the hospital, and had to consult with an expert from a different hospital on the images. I felt so powerless as we waited for the results. After a few hours, the diagnosis came back as Tethered Cord Syndrome.
Fortunately, it sounds much worse than it is. Long story short, her spinal cord, which is supposed to be unattached at the base, is connected to a fatty growth. As she grows, this would stretch the nerves, causing problems with the legs, feet, bowels and bladder (and subsequently the kidneys). There's no indication of any damage now - quite the contrary, she's very strong - but as she develops this would get more and more severe, and any damage that occurs is likely irreversible. Which makes it really good news that we caught this when we did, because there's a surgery that can correct the problem.
It's a strange thing, feeling blessed that your newborn daughter needs a spinal surgery. But that's kind of how I feel. It could have been so much worse - tethered spinal cords usually show up with other problems, such as spina bifida, club feet, or other developmental problems, so having a diagnosis of just TCS is pretty lucky. And there's a surgery to fix the problem, soon, so that she'll never have to develop any of the complications that can occur as she grows. And we've recently become acutely aware of how big a battle some other kids have, which has really put this all in perspective.
Of course, surgery won't be easy. Heck, having the MRI and speaking with the surgeon was tough. We had to find someone to watch our son, we had to take time from work, and drive up to the cities, and sleep on the hospital floor (well, we didn't all have to do that...), and go through that whole nervous, helpless process of waiting to hear your child's diagnosis and the treatment plan.
But we've got family. And that makes it all easier. I can't imagine going through this if we were still in DC.
In December our little girl will have her surgery. I feel like I should have something profound to say about this topic - but the truth be told, in some ways it's just another thing. It's kind of like changing her diaper or cleaning up her spit up. Yeah, it's bigger than those things, but it doesn't change who she is or the way I feel about her, it's just another thing that needs to be taken care of. Whether she has Tethered Cord Syndrome or not, the way I see her doesn't change. Either way, she's my daughter. And either way, I love her. And either way, if she ever needs me to spend my Sunday driving several hours so that I can fix her car, I'll be glad to do it.
Wednesday, October 05, 2011
I think this proves true here in the U.S. too. Basically, we've got a generation of people who have spent their entire lives in relative middle-class comfort. They've probably destroyed the environment to do so, they've run up a tremendous amount of national debt, and now they're all counting on getting a full amount of social security. Obviously we can't blame any member of the previous generations, nor should we. But, generally speaking, the people in charge have been falling pretty strongly on the "withdrawal" side of the ledger for quite some time (so basically, the WWII generation? They gave plenty. It's the folks after them.).
I also would suggest that the marginalization of the young is a fault attributable to the previous generations. Generally speaking, they were able to avoid a lot of the loss in real wages that has happened in the country over the past 30 years, essentially because they were already in positions that enabled them to keep getting modest (cost of living) raises to maintain their level of wealth. Meanwhile, people who entered the work force in those 30 years kept making relatively less and less. Now, especially with the stock market crash and a significant loss in pensions and retirement funds, people aren't exactly rushing off into the sunset. That means they're blocking positions such that younger people can't move up the corporate ladder.
In short, previous generations have run up our debt, decreased our pay, poisoned our environment, shattered our economy, expect us to pay for their retirement, and are preventing us from reaching positions where we could start to fix the problems.
At least, that's what I think these Occupy Wall Street protests are about.
So I have a daughter now... We're big fans of her. It's been two weeks and I'm pretty sure she's already got me wrapped around her finger. I really hope she doesn't want a car for her 16th birthday.
We didn't know what gender the baby would be, but I think I was expecting it to be a boy. Hearing it was a girl really surprised me. I'm not entirely sure what to do with a girl, which is probably strange, because I had so many sisters. But I'm really glad we've got a girl; despite what some of my siblings thought, I always pictured myself as having a daughter.
Life is pretty good.
I made my first campaign contribution recently. I thought that was kind of noteworthy.
I'm also considering getting involved with a campaign or two. It's important enough to me that I think I want to do it. Also, I recently watched The West Wing, so I'm kind of riding on that high still...
Speaking of politics, I've long wondered whether this blog might be a liability to any future political career. I'm inclined to think not - most of what I've written in the past is stuff I've very much left in the past, and I've moved significantly on a lot of positions. I'm also convinced that future generations will be well aware that what you wrote on a blog in your 20's is a lot different than your deeply held political beliefs.
All that said, I'm not in my 20's anymore. And it's probably about time for me to pack up this site. I've had a lot of fun, but given that I'm not posting any more, and that I've reach a more settled point of my life, where I'm not just throwing out thoughts and seeing what develops, it's probably time to move on. I don't know when my last post will be, but it's probably coming soon.
A new webcomic to check out: Fun Factory
It's kind of PG-13 rated, but it's funny. I highly recommend the current storyline (which started on Oct. 3rd). It's good so far.
Every generation thinks it's the last
Every generation thinks it's the end of the world
Wednesday, September 07, 2011
But it doesn't change everyone the same way.
I recently took a road trip with a group of friends from college. The timing of the trip was a little tricky. Because our second child is due here any day, we wanted to go as early as possible. But one of the guys, Brendan, had recently had a kid, and, as any parent knows, you don't want to leave shortly after having a baby. So basically we wanted to go as late as possible. Like I said, the planning was tricky. Eventually we were able to find a time that worked, and I'm immensely glad we did. It was an amazing trip, though a little overfull with long overnight drives.
One of those night drives had Brendan and I taking over duties as driver and navigator, and, as might be expected, our conversation turned to fatherhood. It was invigorating to talk to the new dad. It was a great reminder of what it was like to have a newborn at home, discovering the world along with your child, marveling at each basic function: "Look at him grab my finger!" "Wow, he's able to hold up his head!" "Ooh! That's a good poop!"
As we were talking, Brendan mentioned that he too had revisited the concept of God as Father, which he suddenly found had a lot more meaning. Both of us had thought it to be a fairly routine image of God, when we came to it from the perspective of the child. We knew fathers loved their children, we just didn't understand how unconditionally - and how spontaneous - that love could truly be. But switching over to the father perspective gave us new insights. Fatherly love is special. It isn't prompted by any action or motivated by a cause. It just pours out. Fatherly love for a child occurs because the child occurs. It turns out that God as father isn't a routine image after all. It's profound.
I think a lot of truths about God's love are caught up in this revelation. God loves us unconditionally. God loves us spontaneously. God doesn't love us because we do something, He loves us because we exist. There's some depth here. Only after becoming a dad did I really start to uncover that depth.
Uncovering the depth of fatherly love doesn't necessitate becoming closer to God. Another friend of mine, Tim, seems to have had a very different experience. Tim was a fairly devout Christian, regularly attending churches, studying Scripture and other religious texts, decorating his office with reminders of his faith - the whole kit and caboodle. Tim was the kind of man who, despite a general skepticism in all other matters, trusted God. He trusted God's choices and he trusted God's plan.
And then he became a father. Tim, as I said, isn't the kind of person who trusts the world. He's acutely aware of the bad things that can happen to people, the bad choices people can make, and the ways that those choices can derail a life - or worse. He feared - as all fathers do - that something bad might happen to his son. Thus, Tim found himself confronting the classic theological Problem of Evil. How can God be good and loving if he allows bad things to happen? Tim's question was even more refined. In our conversations he said that he was willing to set aside natural disasters and other such elements; his question was how can God be good if he allows people to do bad things? That is, how can God be good if he gives us free will?
Tim came to think that protecting those we love from harm is more important than letting them choose to make a bad or dangerous decision. God chose free will. Tim chose protection. It was a philosophical disagreement with God. That disagreement has led to some considerable changes in Tim's life. He's very much the same person - and as a practicing Buddhist, still a person of faith - but he has rejected God on philosophical grounds. He no longer is willing to trust God's choice.
Becoming a father had a significant religious effect in our lives. For Brendan and myself it prompted a deeper understanding of God's love. For Tim, that same love led to a profound disagreement with The Almighty. But despite the different outcomes, I think the roots are buried in the same ground.
Brendan and I came to a deeper understanding with God because we fundamentally agreed with his choice. But that doesn't mean we don't feel the tension presented by the problem of evil. If anything bad ever happened to our children, we would both exist in a world beyond grief. Now that I am a father I certainly feel the evil in the world more intensely then I did before, and specifically I worry for my son's sake. I get what Tim feels.
Likewise, Tim felt that same new depth of love that Brendan and I experienced. Tim's love for his son - which parallels God's love for us - prompted a different conclusion than the one God chose, but he's still a person of faith who actively seeks to make the world a more peaceful and stable place, wherein people - including his son - can safely seek out their own choices. He disagrees with God, but that doesn't mean he doesn't see the merit on the other side.
I think that's what this post boils down to: being a father enables a depth of understanding that doesn't exist before that experience. I have a truer connection to God's love, now that I am a dad. At the same time, I have a deeper appreciation for the seriousness of the problem of evil. There's a tension there that being a dad allows me to access in a unique way.
Yes, on an academic level anyone can assess the problem of evil and the merits of God's choice to allow freewill. But becoming a parent enables a more intimate window into the mind of God. I understand God's love in a way I never did before. I understand the threat of evil in a way I never did before. And, in a way I never did before, I understand how profound God's resolution of that tension is. Like Tim, I don't know that I would make the same choice that God did. But, unlike Tim, I'm willing to trust God, and I'm glad he was strong enough to give us free will.
Soon the stream of people gets wider
Then it becomes a river
Tuesday, August 09, 2011
Everything is going very well in the pregnancy. It's really been quite similar to last time in a lot of ways. At least, that's how it seems from my perspective. Perhaps my wife would say otherwise. But even though there have been a lot of similarities, it's the differences that are fascinating me.
It isn't anything new or atypical, but because we already have a child this pregnancy is getting a lot less attention. I play music a lot for our son when he was in the womb. I haven't for this child. Part of that is the different set up we have in our apartment, part of it is lacking a pair of headphones, and part of it is focus. I feel bad. And I wonder what role nurture has in prenatal and early child development. I mean, my son really impresses me with how smart he is. That's probably just the way a parent is supposed to feel, but he seems like a brilliant little kid. He's also very musically-inclined. He loves to sing and dance, picks up songs and lyrics very easily, and we catch him singing by himself quite often. He's not half bad for an almost-two-year-old. Again, this is probably something lots of kids do, but I wonder what role, if any, my playing music for him had. And will child number two miss out on that?
I'm an oldest child, so I think in a lot of ways I have very big expectations for my oldest. And despite the fact that I'm not giving the pregnancy as much attention, I'm kind of rooting for kid number two. Like the underdog. As an oldest, I knew my oldest kid would be exceptional. So that means I've got to really sympathize with kid number two, and give them more to level the playing field. Of course, in my family, the second child pretty much surpassed me in everything, so... I guess maybe it'll work out that way again.
You got no time for the messenger,
Got no regard for the thing that you don’t understand,
Thursday, July 21, 2011
"I read all the arguments, I looked at the issues," he said, "I always thought I knew what I believed. But now, my mind isn't made up."
I had the amazing good fortune to be sitting in the third row that day. Law school is not a place where they teach indecision. When you argue a point, you argue it with confidence. You assert your convictions. For three years I had been learning that certainty was the name of the game, both inside and outside of class. And here was this amazing lawyer, who had argued forcefully a strong ethical belief, admitting to us, in what appeared to be a fit of humble weakness, that he used to think one way, but now his mind wasn't made up.
I hope others in the class took the point to heart too. Who knows if they did. But it made an impression on me.
I write about this now because it isn't just we lawyers who suffer from intransigence. No, that word is popping up a lot lately. In Minnesota we've had a state shutdowns because of refusal to compromise on principles. On a national level the unflinching support of a single ideology threatens our economic well-being. Even in our sports we're looking at nearly impassible divides born of strict adherence to a single view. But I don't write this post about the current politics - though they've got me thinking about this issue - no, instead I write this post about approach. I think that by changing our own orientations we can have a much more productive discourse, a more productive interaction with reality, a more honest discussion with ourselves.
The pervasive motif of modern negotiation appears to be that compromise is weakness, intransigence rules. Rather than work to a solution, accepting that, as in most conflicts, both sides have something worth contributing and something expendable, the view seems to be that the art of careful consideration is itself a lesser skill. But the best negotiators are able to cut to the heart of what each side finds important. Usually, if the sides are both honest, there is something of value underlying the position of each side.
Likewise with any good and honest argument. Pick a controversial topic - health care, tax policy, abortion - and each side rests its position on something of underlying importance. If there wasn't something valuable there, people wouldn't be so passionate and the topic wouldn't be so controversial. So the question is to identify the value of each side and do our best to properly weigh the competing claims. For example, the best health care analysts can tell you what's good with the system now, what's bad with it now, and the problems with each of the proposed fixes. The worst health care analysts are the ones who blindly ascribe to the belief that the U.S. has the best health care in the world, or that there aren't problems in countries with government-run health care.
Now, maybe people think they do this. Maybe people think they weigh the values of both sides. But it seems rare to me. It seems the more frequent thing is that people sit, fixed in their beliefs, on a position without serious consideration of a different view, much less movement towards a new idea. Just like at the negotiating table, any sign of serious consideration is itself a weakness. Better to dismiss the other ideas out of hand and retreat to the familiarity of whatever self-confirming news station we like to watch. Willingness to change is the enemy of strong conviction, goes the logic, and without strong conviction, you cannot advance your cause.
I'd like to turn that logic on it's head. I believe that willingness to change is the partner of strong conviction. Conviction is only truly strong when it comes from a place of understanding. Bravado is not conviction. We can be firmest in our beliefs when we have truly considered them, weighed options, ruminated on the ins and outs, considered the rules and the exceptions to them. By this, of course, I mean that we truly engage the topic, not just make ourselves passingly aware of the other side. Passing acknowledgment happens all the time, but it doesn't count. No, I mean to say that conviction can only properly rest on a foundation of serious and honest contemplation.
What does honest contemplation entail? It requires suspending conviction. You can't hire someone for a position that's already filled. Similarly, you can't stand by your view while seriously weighing the other possibilities. Thus, honest contemplation entails doubt, and admitting that doubt to yourself. And, like the law professor, it probably means admitting doubt to others.
Now, with that consideration comes an opportunity for developing an honest weighing of the issues. Then, when you've weighed the issues, and come to a deeper understanding, you can embrace that position whole-heartedly. From fuller understanding comes fuller conviction. Of course, someday you'll probably run into some new argument that you hadn't considered before, and this will jump start the process all over again. That's kind of the rub - there's almost always more to be considered.
Now, maybe this all seems academic. Maybe it all seems obvious. But I don't feel like I see it in practice very often. I feel like I see a lot of passionate people, standing strong in their convictions. But I feel like I never see them honestly consider the other side. They'll pay lip service to consideration, but that's all you'll get. I feel like people think they've spent enough time in thought, and I feel like they're offended when you ask them to spend a little more time. I feel like people think they've considered everything that's out there, when they've just touched the tip of the iceberg. That's how conversations seem to go. And that's why I'm writing this post. Because the vision - strong conviction born of honest consideration, acknowledging doubt, revisiting the ideas, and reforming strong conviction - doesn't seem to appear often.
I don't see people as willing to change, and I think that's the hallmark of appropriate conviction.
I fear, of course, that people mistake my conviction as false too. It's a reasonable concern. I talk a good game about willingness to change, but I'm obviously firm in my convictions too. That's one of the tricks of the trade: the more willing you are to change, the easier it is to find positions that don't require changing. And so to illustrate a little, I'd like to share some of the things I've found myself change on, over the past decade or so: (note, I won't say what position I now hold on these issues, since that just invites much bigger conversations, but if you know me, odds are good you've got an idea where I've been and where I am now (usually closer to the middle). Some are big changes, some are more subtle). I've changed my mind on same sex marriage. I've changed my mind on gun rights. I've changed my mind on schools teaching creationism. I've changed my mind - twice - on female priests. I've changed my mind on affirmative action. I've changed my mind on drug policy. And more importantly, I evaluated dozens of other serious and controversial topics, and, with a better education and stronger conviction, reaffirmed the things I had believed before.
Now, I think that's a notable list. Maybe you'd disagree. But these were not beliefs that were remnants from childhood, things I had been taught but never evaluated. No, these were all beliefs I had generated as an adult and then, through whatever method - self evaluation, vigorous debate, painful and methodical taunting - I came to reevaluate.
Now, by saying I've changed my mind on all of these things, I don't mean to praise myself. Quite the opposite in fact; I'm embarrassed that I ever believed differently on these issues. I was wrong before. I can see that now. And I know that I haven't reached a final resting place on most of these issues, so there's always a good chance I'll someday look back and see that I'm wrong now. But that's OK that I was wrong before, or that I might be wrong now. Because someday, if I stick to it, I hope I'll be right. I'm going to keep exploring. Like the law professor, I hope to be on the journey to figuring it out long into my old age.
Because there are few issues that I have thought so intensely about so as to have reached a decisive conclusion. And that means I've got a lot of work to do.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger