In Praise of Character: Joe’s Perspective

Being a Character of Character

A child starts as a blank piece of paper. Things are written and erased, rewritten, crossed out, and written again.

Myths and legends, once believed as factual, are revised and sent to the basement of our memory. Childhood fantasy, innocence, and gullibility replaced by reality, reason, and experience.

Yet no matter how well these vestiges are erased or covered over, they remain embedded in our essence. They are the foundation to the genesis of ourselves as individuals. And as first impressions, they carry much sway over our lives and the character we exhibit.

An individual’s character is a blend of the earliest influences in our lives, geography, economic status, family. Later, the people we befriend or avoid, and the world situation, all blend to further refine our character.

A character cannot be labeled. Character is not conservative or liberal. Humans have this need to file everyone else under a convenient simple label. Yet preserving, for themselves, the ability to hold convergent and divergent thoughts. All the world can be divided into two groups, those who oppose my ideas in toto and those who agree with my ideas in toto.

The problem with character is we keep redefining what it means.

Character is the acting in a manner so as to benefit without causing harm. The fact that we need locks and alarms illustrates the dearth of true character within us. Our daily lives are filled with laws, regulations, and artificial controls that speak of the absence of true character in man.

As one of the greatest inspirational humans of all time, believed by many a representative of God himself on earth, Zoroaster, said,

“Seek your happiness in the happiness of all.”

Character is living this ancient golden rule. We’ve known this all along, we’ve just never embraced it.

Many would argue that President Trump is a man of good character by virtue of his profession of love for America and by invoking the name of his god. I would argue this makes my point.

George Orwell, in a book entitled “A Collection of Essays,” wrote, Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

In another essay, he added, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

The political characters of today wish to portray others, immigrants or foreigners, as dangerous as a way to improve their own position. To make their character seem brave and courageous. They, to borrow a phrase from Rudyard Kipling, like to paint others as lesser breeds without the Law.”

On a hopeful note, the general character of man seems to be evolving to a higher state. Despite claims to the contrary, this is a less dangerous world than most would believe. Things are changing. But the evolutionary progress of character may take several unsuccessful turns before finding the true essence of character.

Until then, the true potential for a person of good character eludes us.

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Character, Citizenship and Leadership: Kent’s Perspective

Growing up who were your role models?  My role models were many.  My Dad modeled a life of quiet decency.  He never raised his hand and rarely raised his voice when angry.  He was dependable and kind.  As a building contractor he was honest and set high standards as a craftsman. His faith life was foundational to how he lived and who he was.

Conversely at age seventeen I worked for a manager in a supermarket who showed me what not to be.  I watched as this manager humiliated and bullied his employees.   He wanted to make the point that ‘he was the boss’ and people should do what he wanted out of fear.   I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to be like that’.

In these first 100 days of the Trump presidency where are the people of character?  Who are the positive role models that we want our youth to emulate?

David Brooks, New York Times columnist and conservative commentator wrestles with such questions.   In his  book, ‘The Road to Character’ https://www.c-span.org/video/?325441-1 introduces us to people well-known and little known, who exhibited positive values and qualities that we call ‘character’. He focuses on the deeper values that inform a well lived life. He challenges the reader to rebalance the scales between our ‘resume virtues’ – achieving wealth, fame and status – and our ‘eulogy virtues’, those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

Brooks points out what is painfully obvious, that to often our leaders, political and otherwise, are driven by ‘resume virtues’. Such leaders are caught up in accumulating power, wealth and status and will do whatever it takes.  Character is secondary to outcomes.

In the Netflix series: ‘House of Cards’ we are introduced to Congressman Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood and his wife Claire.  These characters played by actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, are devoid of character and will do whatever it takes to achieve their end.  In ‘House of Cards’ the ends justify the means. http://www.netflix.com/houseofcards

In watching the Trump presidency unfold I see a president and administration who will do what ever it takes to achieve their ends… Make unfounded accusations (President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower) and make unfounded statements as fact as in a recent interview in Time Magazine: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/23/us/politics/what-trumps-time-interview-shows-about-his-thinking.html

Thus far with a few notable exceptions the Republican controlled Congress has overlooked President Trump’s falsehoods to get the ends they want:  Repeal of the Affordable Care Act; overhaul of Tax Code; deregulation of environmental safeguards etc.

Is this the message we want to send to our children?  That the ends justify the means?  That you can do and say anything you want in service to what you consider a greater good?

I’m not going to be like that.  How about you?

Our nation is desperate for women and men of character.

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Character, Citizenship, and Leadership: Joe’s Perspective

Kent and I chose to do a two-part posting on character. In this second part, we discuss how character matters in our roles as citizens and in our elected leaders.

The timing could not be better, or more desperate, depending on your perspective.

The muddled mess that is the Trump administration is a ‘character’ study in character, or the lack thereof.

For those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock or mesmerized by the latest episodes of Basket Weaving with the Stars No One Remembers, the President has demonstrated a remarkable lack of character, Presidential or otherwise.

First, he tweets:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! 6:35 AM – 4 Mar 2017

This, of course, ignites a firestorm of outrage by his supporters. I expected to see hordes mobbing the streets, armed with pitchforks and torches, screaming “Kill the beast.”

On the other, more rational, side were those troubled by such a serious allegation. Concerned that the President must have evidence to back up such a charge. Anyone of character would before making such a claim.

But no, there was no evidence presented. None offered to Congress, the Justice department, or Breitbart Media.

Not even a smidgen of evidence courtesy of the Kremlin.

Nothing.

A President of the United States publicly accused the former President of the United States of a crime, a serious crime, without one iota of evidence.

What does that say about the character of this man?

Character requires several elements. Embracing the truth, working for the common good, courage to face difficult situations, and a willingness to admit, and learn, from one’s errors.

The behavior of this President over these first months of his administration shows he possesses none of them.

On the other hand, former President Obama, despite being accused of a crime without any basis in fact, has remained calm and reserved. Offering a limited response to deny the allegation and demonstrating a maturity of character by not engaging in a juvenile pissing contest.

At a time in history when the character of our leaders is most critical, we are led by a man divested of character, hostile to the truth, and divorced from reality.

Now, those who support Trump, among whom I am certain are many of good character, have latched onto the statement by the Chairman of the Intelligence committee. He said that some of Trump’s associates, and perhaps Trump himself, had communication intercepted “legally” and “incidentally” in a criminal investigation.

Based on some mysterious information he and no one else on the committee received from some unidentified source.

They see this as a vindication of the President’s tweet. See, they shout, he was right. They did monitor him.

They have a strange concept of vindication. It reflects a serious flaw in character. It is as if a video surfaced of members of the Manson crime family emerging from Sharon Tate’s home, drenched in blood. Charlie Manson then announces look I told you I wasn’t there.

Strange vindication indeed. What does it say about one’s character that you would embrace a falsehood and be reassured by the existence of a criminal investigation?

One’s true character is not something you can conceal very long. It shows itself in your actions despite claims you make to the contrary.  We can only hope there are members of Congress and within the Justice department who possess a strong and honest character.

The character of the American people, while imperfect, has always found a way to face the truth. Sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes leading the way. We can hold onto hope that soon someone of character will occupy the office of the Presidency.

Although I hoped never to hear these words in my lifetime again, we look forward to a new President say, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over….”

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Under Penalty of Death: Joe’s Perspective

Killing our Way to Prevention

Dylan Roof, the killer of nine innocent people, received the death sentence after trial. If his case remains consistent with the national average, barring his conviction being overturned or his dying under other circumstances, he will be executed in the year 2032.

The average time an inmate sits on death row while appeals run their course is 15 years 5 months. As of July 2016, there were 2,095 inmates on death row. The number of inmates on death row, charted over time, is telling. It begs an explanation for the dramatic increase.

In 1953, there were 151 inmates on death row, we executed 62 (47.2%.) Over the next few years, the numbers of inmates began to increase, yet the percentage of executions decreased. The Supreme Court decision in death penalty cases effectively stopped executions from 1968 until 1976 (0 executions.)

1977 (1 execution)

1979 (2)

Since then, there’s been a steady increase. Our best year was 1999 with 98 executions. As a percentage of inmates on death row, the ratio of executions remains steady at 1.3 to 1.5%.  During this period, the time on death row between sentencing and execution rose.

The question some might ask is, how can we speed up the process?”

I would ask what do we get for this 15 years and 5-month investment in maintaining the life of a convicted murderer?

The answer is not as simple as most would think.

Ignoring, for the moment, Benjamin Disraeli’s admonition “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” let’s think about this for a moment.

The United States leads the world in rates of incarceration. We are in good company in executions. Worldwide, the leader board for executions looks like this.

1.China

2.Iran

3.Pakistan

4.Saudi Arabia

5.USA

But enough with the numbers, let’s consider the reason. More to the point the lack of reason. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  1. Why do we lead industrialized nations in most forms of criminal violence, in particular, gun violence?
  2. Is the fact that the death penalty is a 100% effective deterrent against those who are executed yet has little measurable deterrent effect on crime rates enough to warrant its application?
  3. What of the numbers of convictions that have been reversed or vacated based on Prosecutorial or Law Enforcement misconduct?
  4. If nothing is one hundred percent correct, are we willing to accept the likelihood that we have, or will, execute an innocent person?”
  5. At what of the politics of the matter? Attorneys General, Sheriffs, and other elected officials face criticisms when they fail to solve heinous crimes. What of the potential for the politics of the matter to overwhelm the search for truth?

 

The matter is not a simple one. The pain of victims, the ruin of families, the debilitating effect of crime, the very nature of humans to seek to punish those that would harm others. These elements weigh on the matter and deserve consideration.

There are some people in the world we cannot fix. Dylan Roof is just one more example of damaged goods. But I wonder if we do more damage to ourselves by killing him than we realize.

History is replete with examples of efforts to solve problems by killing our way to the solution. I wonder if, millennia from now, scholars will look at our time of embracing the death penalty as our well-intentioned, yet equally evil, version of a final solution.

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In Praise of Character: Kent’s Perspective

In the aftermath of a contentious presidential election the bar keeps being lowered as to what is permissible. Inflated statements and unfounded accusations are dressed up as ‘alternative-facts’. Facts deemed unwelcome are called ‘fake news’. Character assassination via Twitter are considered fair game by our new President.

What are we to make of all this?

Enter the sane and measured voice of conservative commentator David Brooks. Under the category ‘everything is relative’, Brooks a long time voice of Republican moderation now finds himself painfully out of step with the excess’ of the Trump administration.

His recent book, ‘The Road to Character’ https://www.c-span.org/video/?325441-1 introduces us to people well known and little known, who exhibited positive values and qualities that we call ‘character’. He focuses on the deeper values that inform a well lived life. He challenges the reader to rebalance the scales between our ‘resume virtues’ – achieving wealth, fame and status – and our ‘eulogy virtues’, those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

Brooks points out what is painfully obvious, that to often our leaders, political and otherwise, are driven by ‘resume virtues’. Such leaders are caught up in the culture of celebrity. Celebrity places the focus on oneself,  rather than on the good one can do for others.

‘The Road to Character’ reintroduces familiar names like Dwight Eisenhower and to lesser known names like Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day. Such persons were regular folk like you and me. A mix of strengths and imperfections. What unites them is an underlying sense of deeply held values that influence the choices they make and the path they chose to walk.

The source of their values varied but what unifies their story is an interesting mix of personal restraint and concern for the well being of others. Mixed in is a spirit of persistence that carries a person through times of trial and seeming failure. Simply put, a person of character is guided by  values that serve to define who they are and how they live.

I was fortunate to have a dad who was a man of character. Norman Harrop was one of five children in a family that struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression. In World War II he was a radio man in the US Army Air Corp in India.

Returning home after four years at war, he married and raised two children. He was a small time self-employed building contractor. As a boy I remember an adult saying to my Dad: ‘Norman, your problem as a business man is you’re too honest’. I wondered then and I wonder now: ‘How can a person be too honest?’

Norman’s values were rooted in his faith:  He was gentle with his boys, kind and helpful to family and neighbors. A  generous person who didn’t draw attention to himself.

When he died of cancer at age 78,  a long line of friends, clients, family  stretched outside the funeral home and into the parking lot. We gathered to honor a quiet man of character.

David Brooks remind us that the antidote to our self centered, celebrity driven culture is to be found in revisiting and embodying time honored values. Values rooted in our highest ideals as a nation, modeled by mentors and found in the wisdom faith i.e. ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you’.

We live in a time desperate for women and men of character.  What values do you hold dear?

 

 

 

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Words to Actions

The Heretic and the Holy man will be on a temporary delay while Kent Harrop (the Holy one) puts his words into actions in Nicaragua. By bringing clean water to people in need, Kent and others are doing good things because they need to be done.

While the unnecessary display of Boston Red Sox hats is in poor taste, I won’t let that detract from these otherwise admirable efforts

Many love to complain and wail about the way things are. Kent and his associates do something about it.

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy (who paraphrased George Bernard Shaw) “Some men see things as they are and ask why? Others dream things that never were and ask why not”

So “Invisible being in the sky” speed, Kent Harrop. We admire your efforts.

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What Gives Life Meaning: Is There a Cosmic Power in the Universe? Kent’s Perspective

On Super Bowl Sunday there were many in Patriot’s Nation who believed that a Cosmic force had rained down grace and blessing upon the faithful.   How else to explain coming back in the later part of the third quarter from a 28 – 3 deficit?  We went from the impossible to the improbable to a ‘Win for the Ages’.  What else but Divine intervention?

Unfortunately I have to agree with Joe, my favorite cynic and atheist.  While he is misguided in many ways (a Yankee fan), I agree that this improbable victory was a mix of great coaching, great plays, unlikely heroes (thank you James White), Falcon miscues and that intangible we call ‘luck’.

Joe ends his reflection with this: ‘If there is a cosmic force, I would hope it would devote its energy to more important issues. This world presents a plethora of choices.  The variety and seriousness of these choices point to the absence of such cosmic phenomenon.’

Joe and I agree that the idea of a God/gods intervening in a sports event is a low bar to set.  It says more about us and our priorities than those of any Divine being.

Praying over a sports event can distract us from the real question:  Does God act when the real shit hits the fan?  Where is God when we or our loved one receive a difficult diagnosis?  Does God hear the prayer of the Syrian mom and dad as the bombs fall around their home in Aleppo?

Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’.  Asks this timeless question.   Their son Aaron was born with a terminal disease called progeria.  He and his wife knew from age two that their son would not live beyond his teens.

They prayed countless times for a miracle. They prayed that their son would be healed. Such prayers went unanswered.  Their boy died.

Rabbi Kushner then asks this question: ‘Because our prayers went unanswered does that mean that God does not exist? Does it mean that God doesn’t care?  Does it mean that God is not all powerful?’

He ends the book by saying: ‘I don’t know why God didn’t answer our deepest prayer.  I’ve never received an answer that makes sense….But to the question ‘where is God?’ …to that I have an answer’.

Rabbi Kushner goes on to share how he and his family felt God’s presence, comfort, strength and peace when they needed it the most.  The Rabbi says that he can’t prove it nor measure it …but for he and his family, God walked with them through their pain and offered a measure of blessing.

People like me know what Rabbi Kushner speaks of.  There have been moments in my life, moments painful and sweet, when I too have sensed the comforting presence of a cosmic force which many call God.

Is there a cosmic power at work in the universe? Yes. Can I prove this? No.  But as with the Rabbi, I know this to be true.

 

 

 

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