Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Race, Injustice and Indignation

A few weeks ago, race relations in the country pretty much burst into flames in the aftermath of the non-indictments of officers who were involved in incidents leading to the deaths of two unarmed black men. While there are common themes in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I tend to believe that the cases need to be considered separately given the different specific circumstances of the two incidents. Without getting into much detail here, my understanding based upon what I've read and heard is that while in both cases there was an element of resisting arrest, Michael Brown's death followed a physical struggle in which the police officer had reason to believe he was going to be disarmed, with the possibility of having his weapon used against him. Eric Garner was killed when a police officer, without any clear and dangerous threat to himself or others, employed a chokehold barred by the regulations of his own department and suffocated a man who plead for help in his dying breaths, crying to anyone that would listen that he couldn't breathe. I'm certain that while some share my view, others will strongly disagree. Some believe that both police actions were warranted, and still others believe that both police actions were clear cases of state-sponsored murder, if not manslaughter. I can respect either contrary perspective, given one's interpretation of what was read and heard.

What has given me the most pause in the midst of these tragedies is the outpouring of emotion, and I find myself wondering where this will all lead. As I look through social media, I see pockets of anger and indignation. On the news, I see "die-in's" and rallies of people screaming "Hands up, don't shoot!" and "I can't breathe!". I can see the benefits of civil disobedience as a means of telling the country, the world and the government that the status quo is unacceptable, but at the same time, I lament that the only ones who are engaged or tuning in are those who agree with the cause. Or put another way, they're largely preaching to the converted. The people who are disengaged are sick and tired of "people playing the race card" or and/or has moved on to Christmas shopping or sharing photos of their kids and pets on Facebook. Why? Maybe they don't know what to say. Or it could be because it doesn't affect them or their immediate sphere so it's not an issue.

So I wonder to myself what that balance is between graciously and patiently educating and expressing anger at the apparent apathy of others, and what really will make a difference in this world which is really broken. Having a diversity of friends and connections on social media, I see a whole segment of my friends who are angry and actively participating in the rallies. They are the same people are aren't shy about liking and sharing more articles around the poor state of race relations and the dangers of over-militarized and aggressive policing. There are also friends who I love and respect, almost all of whom are white, who don't have anything to say at all or have simplified the equation into "if you don't resist the police, you won't get hurt".

I've been fortunate to be involved with a lot of diversity and inclusion programs at the corporate level, and in one recent event focused on gender equity, we spoke about "white man's privilege" and the tacit benefits that white males subconsciously receive from society which are withheld from others. In an activity where people were able submit their honest thoughts anonymously on an index card, one of my colleagues wrote the following: "I resent this program trying to make me feel guilty about being a white man." I appreciated the honesty in the sentiment.

So to answer my own query around the balance between being angry or patient educating, I offer this appeal. If you're a person of racial privilege who doesn't think it exists or matters, please try to recognize it. You don't have to feel guilty about it, but at least recognize that it exists. Perhaps that evolves into sympathy towards those who don't have it, and acknowledge the implications for those people. Maybe you get to know someone or a family who doesn't look like you, go out for lunch or invite them into your home. Perhaps that will evolve into a desire to recognize that the status quo isn't all that good. And maybe that'll evolve into a desire to raise your voice to change that status quo.

But there's another appeal. For friends who are angry just not at racial injustice, but the people who you think seem to minimize the problems rooted in race who you deem as "part of the problem", I ask for your grace and patience. Please be patient with me, because I know I don't totally get it. But I know firsthand that demonizing individuals who don't share the same perspective as you isn't terribly effective. Ironically, you have the "benefit" of a perspective which others don't have. Listen patiently to opposing points of view and respect and thank them for their candor, even if you disagree.

To that point, maybe you can reach out to a law enforcement officer to hear his or her perspective on the recent events. And be open to having your own viewpoints evolve. You may emerge with a new found appreciation for the work for the many in the field who work with integrity and courage. Perhaps you'll sympathize with how the actions of some have led to a condemnation of an entire population and their culture (it's interesting how we all succumb to this). In doing so, you may be amazed at how willing they are to hear your perspective.

A lot of people, including myself, can get frustrated and impatient when the answer to these societal issues is more "dialogue". But the truth of the matter is, I'd love to see more dialogue and less rhetoric. At least that's a step closer to progress.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Our Heroes in the Right Places

It's dangerous to have heroes.

In the eulogy that Nike Chairman Phil Knight delivered at Joe Paterno's funeral in the shadow of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, Knight spoke eloquently about Paterno - notwithstanding the cloud surrounding his dismissal and firing - had been his hero for some time and was still his hero. Here's an excerpt from that eulogy:
I am a man who has always needed heroes. It started when I was a boy and I never outgrew it. It has, I'm sure, something to do with how I decided to make my living. A decade and a half ago an Esquire magazine reporter asked the question, "Who is your hero?" My answer was simple: my college track coach and partner, Bill Bowerman. He had won four national championships, coached more sub four minute milers than anyone when he retired. He insisted he was not a track coach. He was a professor of competitive response. One year at the University of Oregon, the only group that had a higher grade point average than the track team was a fraternity. He said do right and fear no man. When he died on Christmas Eve in 1999, I asked myself, "What do I do for a hero now?" Two months later on the Nike trip, the answer showed itself across the table wearing a thick set of eyeglasses. I said, "I'm not asking your permission, I'm just telling you, I need someone to look up to. You're my new hero." 
Why do people need heroes? I completely understand that there's value in having someone in the flesh to emulate, someone who personifies all of the virtues which you aspire to. It's one thing to say, be generous, kid and good, but what always seems to be most difficult is assessing what that actually looks like. Heroes serve to be those walking and talking of examples of those virtues, taking all of the guesswork out of what it means to have good character.

Interestingly, television has been one of the great tools of the trade when it comes to harvesting heroes. Gen-Xers like myself were jaded and cynical enough to eliminate traditional candidates (public officials, politicians, athletes) for hero-designation. Instead, we found comfort in two-dimensional television archetypes to be our role models. In some ways, that made sense because it gave a nod at the fallibility of every human being, and that only on television could someone be blameless. For that challenging endeavor of being a good father, we tapped into characters such as Steven Keaton, Jason Seaver and on classic re-runs, Mike Brady. But nobody was held as the quintessential "good dad" as much as Cliff Huxtable from "The Cosby Show".

Here's the funny thing - people began to see Bill Cosby as being interchangeable with Cliff Huxtable. In some ways, Cosby was responsible for that. For example, the show wasn't "The Huxtables", so Cosby himself seemed to welcome the melding of his on-screen persona with himself. In the same way, Cosby often toured as a one-man show, and would regale audiences with observational comedy around life and fatherhood, very much in the same way that Cliff Huxtable did on the television show. And all of his schtick was wholesome and American as apple pie. People of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds were thrilled that in a society and world which increasingly saw the breakdown of the family, Bill, er, Cliff was still there demonstrating good parenthood with a slide of humor.

Flash forward to present day. and allegations of sexual abuse are flying around Bill Cosby's misdeeds. What's been interesting to me is to see the diversity of reactions to the charges. Some are outraged, furious that in this season of renewed awareness of the horrors of sexual abuse that another man was caught behaving badly. Others are shocked that someone who had otherwise been such a positive role model could have made such a terrible series of a mistake. Some are skeptical, wondering aloud why these allegations surfaced suddenly in a wave after being dormant so long. For many, it's a combination of the above emotions. For many, the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness, recognizing that someone just isn't who we thought or wished they were.

Going back to my original point, having heroes can be dangerous. If having heroes means that we leave no room for moral failure, we're inevitably going to encounter a harsh lesson in reality. If having heroes means that their moral failure has the power to make one question the fundamental goodness of mankind, then we're opening the doors to waves of cynicism. There isn't anyone, outside of God Himself, who can or should bear that level of moral scrutiny.

Or maybe we need to redefine what heroes are. Maybe the better approach towards heroes is recognizing that we're all broken people, with some of us muddling through, barely held together with scotch tape better than others. Every human being has opportunities each day to do something worthy of a being a hero. I believe that acts of heroism occur each day by people in our homes, our neighborhoods, our work and our schools. At least for me, those are the heroes that I find most inspiring and impactful.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Greed, the Anti-Thanks

In this season of Thanksgiving, it's important to take stock of all that we have and to give thanks to God. Over the past couple of nights, my wife and I have been more deliberate around encouraging ourselves and our children to share about everyday graces and gifts. As we pray at night, we remind ourselves of the many things that we are thankful for: our family, our health, our home, our food, our friends, my job, our finances, etc.

During dinner a couple of night ago, my wife shared with me an interesting tidbit from a book that she was reading regarding Adam and Eve and how their act of eating forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was not only an act of cosmic mutiny against God and an act of distrust of God's goodness and character - it was an act of profound ungratefulness. It really was the first act of anti-thanksgiving.

The Garden of Eden was a paradise flush with anything and everything that Adam and Even could have wanted, and instead of gratefulness and joy, their hearts wandered to the one thing that God told them to stay away from. Or put another way, instead of being immensely grateful, they just wanted more.

That's the interesting rub for me. The opposite of thankfulness isn't (just) ungratefulness. The opposite of thankfulness is greed. The heart's condition sways away from thankfulness and contentment when ignores the harvest which is in hand and looks covetously at what's in the distance. My heart is not and cannot be thankful when it obsesses about more job security, more money, bigger houses, newer cars, more friends and greater stature. And the truth is, many of the things we wish for aren't bad, it's just that we've lost the spirit of gracious contentedness. We have lost the ability to say, ""God, as much as I think I'd like more, I will give thanks for what I have and trust You to give me exactly what I need.

So if the goal is to be thankful, a good place to start is to stop obsessing over more.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Healthy Jolt of Figurative Near-Death Experiences

I was in the midst of yet another work crisis when I emailed one of my subordinates an urgent request to pull together some information I needed to address a fire drill. As I sent the email from my car during my morning commute (honest, I did so when the car was at a complete stop at a traffic light), I glanced and saw that the email didn't go through.

Message Not Sent. Your message has been rejected by the server.

Irked, I went into my Outbox of my iPhone and re-sent the message. Again I got:

Message Not Sent. Your message has been rejected by the server.

At this point, I started to get a little nervous. Is it possible that my e-mail access had been turned off? Is it possible that I had been... No, they didn't, did they?  Am I going to be greeted by security and human resources when I got to my office? I know that things had been tough at work, but really? The scenarios raced in my mind.

When I got into my office, I tried to log into my computer and ominously, I got this message:

Your account has been locked. Please contact the IT helpdesk for more information.

As I called IT, my brain multi-tasked into numerous different directions. I was thinking of what I was going to tell my wife. I was angered at being dismissed in such a slipshod and unprofessional way. I was thinking of the people in my network who I was going to be able to talk to around next steps. In some ways, I went through an ultra-concentrated version of the 7 Stages of Grief. Since I had already gotten fired, I didn't bother bargaining, but I quickly ran through anger, depression towards acceptance and a "hey, this is for the best and I'm actually a little relieved " form of hope.

Of course, all of that emotional energy was wasted when I called the IT helpdesk and the fellow on the other line matter-of-factly said, "Hmm... I'm not sure what happened here. It's unlocked now, sorry about the inconvenience." And when I had more or less normal conversations later on with my human resources counterpart and my boss, I came to the realization that my morning was much ado about nothing.

But it wasn't a complete waste. To me, it was a healthy jolt which forced me to wrestle with how much of my own identity I placed in my work. It reminded me that any vocation or job is a temporary season without any real security. Rather than trying to grip the hold on the job tighter and scheme to manipulate circumstances and respond out of fear, I resolved to take a step back and remind myself of the basic credo I've always told others: "Do your best and work with integrity and let God take care of the results. Whatever needs to happen God will make happen."

I've read that some people who go through near-death experiences often respond by making the most of their everyday, recognizing that life is fragile and each day is precious. Others respond with a sense of invincibility, reasoning that they're playing with "house money" as they've already cheated death once and any extra day is gravy. While my experience wasn't nearly as traumatic, it's certainly helped me to put work and my attitude towards work in its proper place.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Flawed Parenting and the Kids Who Somehow Survive

Before I had children, I would shake my head upon hearing about kids getting in trouble. "Parents," I'd think to myself. "If the kid had better parents, he wouldn't have been in this situation." After all, if parents would just follow the Brady Bunch model of parenting - comprised of dilemma, discipline plus sage and stern advice from parents and ending with resolution and hugs at the end - society would be a whole lot better for it. It wasn't that complicated, just follow the above formula and you'd get kids that would be happy, healthy and well mannered.

Of course, my illusions around the effectiveness of formulaic parenting ending quickly once I became a parent. I was reminded of this when I read an article mourning the loss of three young men in a tragic car wreck. I appreciated the tone, grace and wisdom of the article, which stated the following: "Any adult who looks at this horror and doesn't say, "There but for the grace of God . . . " is deluded about what tempts their own kids (or kids' friends). Or about what their own youthful years and peers were like."

The teenage mind is a wacky thing, and I know this because I was one, and heck, I was actually a well-behaved one. But like every teenage kid, I did some stupid things out of sense of invincibility and brashness. Much like those teens who lost their lives in the tragic car accident, I liked to drive fast, and there was a day when I was enjoying zipping around a local mountain road in my '82 Honda Accord. Unfortunately for me, I failed to navigate a turn as a short school bus was approaching and ending up fishtailing. But by the grace of God, I didn't fishtail into the bus or fishtail off the side of the mountain. Instead I plowed into the side of the mountain, which caused considerable damage to my vehicle (to the point my rear view mirror broke off and ended up in the rear seats with the force of the collision), but I managed to walk away from the wreck.

Of course, I'm not advocating absentee or irresponsible parenting. Parents should absolutely love, teach, discipline and nurture the hearts, minds and souls of their children. But there simply isn't any black and white correlation with how kids respond. In the most literal sense, the outcomes emerge very much by the grace of God.

I think about this for my own children. My wife and I deeply love our children, but at the end of the day, after much parenting and praying, we release them into the hands of a God who loves them more than we do. And by the grace of God they go.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fatherhood and Grace

A couple of months ago, a sister of a friend was soliciting "words of wisdom" to be part of a surprise scrapbook to commemorate the birth of their first child. After some thought, I passed along the following to my friend who I've known for a long time, having met at a college Christian fellowship:

One of the great gifts of parenthood is that it provides a unique glimpse in terms of our own Sonship through Jesus Christ. There's something profound about holding your newborn child (and I've been blessed with three of them) and feeling such a powerful love which, frankly, the child has done nothing to "earn". The baby can't speak, encourage and clearly is unable to physically help me in any way. But a parent has such intense love simply because the child is his or hers. And it's a wonderful reflection of an infinitely more intense and faithful love that our God extends to us, who are even less deserving than that helpless child. And we give thanks because He loves us, and through Christ has made us His own.

Interestingly, parenthood is also a humbling reminder of how much our love fails to reflect the lavishness and abundance of God's love, particularly in areas such as grace, patience and mercy. Last week, one of the pastoral interns at our church delivered a terrific sermon in which he shared an anecdote in which his toddler daughter continued to utilize a playground set incorrectly. Frustrated that his daughter was walking up the slide and down the ladder, he scolded her and said, "Next time I'm not going to catch you and when you fall, it'll be your fault." His candor and vulnerability in sharing this was redeemed in the sense that he used it to teach the congregation a stark example of what God's love is not like.

Sadly, I responded that afternoon by doing something really similar. Taking my three kids to the pool that afternoon, I was fed up with them whining about my refusal to play certain pool games with them in the deeper end (I had tried to explain to them that I needed to keep an eye out of my youngest) and stormed, "Look, if you're going to complain and be ungrateful, we can leave right now!" My chastened children stopped complaining and quietly slinked away.

Frankly, to desire children to use a playground set correctly and to not whine aren't misguided, per se. But there's a certain dark edge to human correction in which vindictiveness and frustration seep in. The remarkable thing about God's correction is that it's done without either, and that even in the midst of our sin and error, He is patient and slow to anger. These are attributes which I need to continue to aspire towards.

Even within devout Christian circles, I wonder if we falsely attribute aspects of human discipline to God. For example, when experiencing hardship or loss, we may be prone to think things such as "Well, God heard me complain about my job and now He's gotten me fired," or "I got into a car accident because God was angry that I missed church this past Sunday." Again, it's not that God doesn't discipline those He loves - the Bible is pretty clear about this - but it can be dangerous to personalize circumstances, especially when the human versions of discipline are often so tainted.

I am grateful that the discipline I receive from God is purely loving - without taint of frustration, impatience or self-interest. And I am spurred to try to do likewise with my own children.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Thief Called Depression

Since the emergence of social media, I don't think I've seen any death cause such an outpouring of grief as with Robin Williams' this past Monday. What I found interesting was the universality of the reaction across all types of people from all walks of life. For example, when Nelson Mandela passed away this past December, those friends who were more geopolitically aware or passionate about racial justice offered tributes with photos and quotes on Facebook or Twitter. But when Williams passed away, I found a remarkable consistency of grief and sorrow from people who would otherwise probably have nothing in common. People of all different races, religions, political leanings all reflected sorrowfully about how a certain clip from a movie of his deeply touched them, and how his humor - sharp without being mean-spirited - often served as a reliable balm in the midst of the drudgery of life.

My wife wondered aloud about what made him such a beloved personality. My hypothesis was that even though the vast, vast majority of us didn't know Robin Williams personally, it just felt like we did. He was such a magnetic and effective performer that people couldn't help project the characteristics of the characters he played on the actor, himself. For example, it was easy to believe that Williams was Mrs. Doubtfire, the loving dad that would do zany things just to be with the kids he loved or that Williams was Mr. Keating, the teacher that loved his students too much to allow them to live lives that were anything less than extraordinary. There was a kind, yet vulnerable, fun-loving joy to almost all of his characters (yes, "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia" are exceptions here), and we all assumed that if you took a gestalt of these characters, you'd get Robin Williams.

We all know now that this wasn't the case. Sure, many of us who regularly flipped through magazines or newspapers were aware that he had some issues with substance abuse. But did anyone actually see him being clinically depressed, much less taking his own life?

With Williams' death has come a good deal of thoughtful discussion around depression. I remember my first experience with depression many years ago with a friend at church, and I did my best to be supportive. Thankfully, I had the good sense not to exhort my friend to "suck it up" or "pray and trust God more", though I'm sure that this horrid direction is sometimes still given by well-intentioned people who are sadly misinformed or mistakenly equate a clinical condition with "having bad day". Like many who are depressed, this friend had good periods and bad periods, but sadly took his own life after many years of battling. And there have been other friends who are living with depression. And some of those have taken their lives, and others who are still bravely fighting on.

I don't have depression (at least I don't think I do), so I can't claim any deep credibility in the matter. But what I do believe is that it's a horrible, horrible disease. Like any disease, there isn't (or at least shouldn't be) any stigma. A person with depression deserves no more scorn or judgment than a person with colon cancer. Like any disease, there's a hope that it can be maintained, Lord-willing over the course of a lifetime. And like any disease leading to death, the anger of those left behind should be directed to the horrid disease, not the afflicted for being "weak" or "selfish".

Robin Williams is gone, having left a legacy of laughter and comedy. It would be ironic, and dare I say redemptive, to see his death become a catalyst in educating all of us around this disease. Perhaps that would be fit legacy to honor the man who touched so many, to find ways to support those with the same condition that took his life.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Magnetic Pull of Home

A week and a half ago, the sports world was jolted with the news that LeBron James, the best player in the National Basketball Association, would return to his home state Cleveland Cavaliers after a four year stint with the Miami Heat. To quickly recap for non-sports fans, James, who hailed from nearby Akron, had been drafted by Cleveland and had spent the first seven years of his career there before becoming a free agent in 2010. After being wined and dined by a number of hopeful teams, he proceeded to announce his choice on national television. With his words, "I'm taking my talents to South Beach..." he incurred the wrath of basketball fans everywhere (except Miami) and particularly Clevelanders who felt it was unnecessarily cruel to bolt his home state team in such a public and humiliating fashion. The owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert wrote a scathing open letter which among other things, blasted James as "cowardly", "narcissistic" and "self-promotional". Cavaliers fans held bonfires where his jersey and likeness were torched. For four years, he wore the proverbial black hat teaming up with two other superstars to go to the NBA Finals each year and winning the championship twice.

With such success over that four year period and such an acrimonious divorce with his former team, it came as a bit of a shock when the news came that he would be returning home. And he did so, in an amazingly thoughtful and heartfelt essay penned with Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins.

The essay covers his reconciliation with Dan Gilbert and how much he enjoyed his four years in Miami. He talks about his desire to win as many championships as possible. But what he makes clear is that he wants to go home. Some would argue that his decision is irrational, that the rancor and hatred from Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland fans as he departed essentially nuked the bridge of return. Others could point at an unproven team with a history of futility would tarnish his legacy and prevent him from earning the additional championships necessary to propel him into the same stratosphere of glory as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. He left a brilliant basketball mind in Pat Riley (with six championship rings) to hitch his wagon with a General Manager and Head Coach with less than three months combined of NBA experience. So why in the world would he do such a thing?

As he stated plainly, "This is what makes me happy."

He has reasons, sure. He wants to raise his growing family near his hometown. He wants to bring a championship to Cleveland and he wants to see the people of northeast Ohio to be proud of where they live. And he wants others to follow his example and stick around to make a difference. But as he says, "This is what makes me happy."

I can relate with that. Home often has this irresistible pull which draws us back to it, even against reason and rational thinking. In the same way LeBron chose the struggling rust belt of northeast Ohio over the glitz and glamour of South Beach, home draws people from prestige to provincial, from higher to lower "quality of life", from lower to higher costs of living and from temperate to uncomfortable climates. Home draws people from sophistication to simplicity, from beauty to blandness and even from leisure to struggle. Like many matters of the heart, it's not easily understood.

Shortly after I came to Houston, I wrote a blog post about the concept of home. I still believe I'm where I should be today. But like LeBron and anyone else who lives apart from the place where they (in LeBron's words) would say: "It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart," there will always be that pull.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Horrible Darkness of Perceived Injustice and Entitlement

I've had to rot in loneliness. It's not fair.
It's an injustice, a crime.
I will punish all of you for it.
I'll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you.
If I can't have you, girls, I will destroy you. 
And all of you men, for living a better life than me, I hate you. I hate all of you. I can't wait to give you exactly what you deserve. Utter annihilation. 

These are excerpts from the chilling video left by Elliot Rodger, the young man who proceeded to stab to death three of his roommates before going on a shooting spree in which he killed three more people. Besides the shock and sadness in the wake of the tragedy, the event has predictably re-ignited the debate around gun control, mental health and our culture of violence. I've also read thoughtful essays around the issues of misogyny and the role of race.

For me, one of the things that I've thought about was the force and clarity of Elliot Rodger's conviction that what he was doing was a proper and legitimate act of justice. I saw the video on YouTube, and what was frightening was how articulate and determined his "farewell speech" was. This wasn't a goofy and nervous individual who was muttering gibberish and talking to himself while smearing himself in peanut butter, but a person who came to the clear conclusion that God / the world / humankind had shafted him and he was going to re-balance the scales of justice.

And then a sobering thought came to mind: Are we more similar to Elliot Rodger than we'd like to admit?

I find that all of us are prone to a skewed view of justice in this world, specifically one which overwhelmingly lends bias to ourselves or our own points of view. It's common to chafe at the irritating characteristics of other people while turning a blind eye towards our own short-comings. We hold our character flaws in euphemistic terms while shaking our head at the indisputable evil in others. For example, we are "passionate" while others are "aggressive"; we are "confident" while others are "arrogant"; we are "meticulous" while others are "controlling"; we are "discerning" while others are "judgmental"; we are "friendly" while others are "phony"... and of course, we have righteous indignation while others are are simply irrationally and unjustly angry.

We are prone to being inaccurate in adjudicating justice when it comes to ourselves. Elliott Rodger is certainly an extreme example, but I'm convinced that he died completely thinking that he was clearly an innocent victim in his life of sexual frustration and thus entitled to retribution. Of course he was absolutely wrong, but in his own mind clouded by a combination of mental illness and evil, I doubt he recognized it. And that same combination of mental illness and evil precipitated his interpretation of the fair "sentence" after his verdict, namely the killing of random men and women.

I'm confident that for the overwhelming majority of us, our sense of injustice won't manifest itself in such abominable ways. But I'd submit that there are cases of perceived injustice and the entitlement to retribution which are also extremely destructive, both to ourselves and to those who surround us. Maybe we need to take a step back during those times when we're most outraged to better discern our own heart motives and the benign intentions of others. Maybe it'd be helpful to talk to a trusted friend or pray earnestly about why feel such a strong sense of injustice. Is it injustice or is it wounded pride? Is it an issue of fairness or an issue of not wanting to lose?

Of course, there are times which people are legitimately wronged and we need to call out and confront evil and sin. I'm not advocating ignoring those situations. What I'm suggesting is that approaching those situations with a great dose of humility and recognition of our own brokenness would go a long way in terms of the ultimate goals of reconciliation, peace, understanding and relational redemption.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Learning Character on the Diamond

My son Daniel recently finished up his second season of Little League here in Texas, and in addition to sharpening his skills and acumen on the baseball diamond, there have been some key character lessons he's been able to glean from this past season.

Some of those lessons are fairly common in most athletic or artistic endeavors. For example, practice leads to good performances. There's an importance in persevering even when things get rough. A team which supports each other performs better than one which is wrought with infighting and finger-pointing.

There are some other more lessons that I think he's picked up, as well. For example, Daniel was pretty much cemented in right field for most of the season, with an occasional stint at second base. Why? Daniel's one of the weaker fielders, and you place them accordingly. The coach wasn't malicious about it, but I realized later in the season that Daniel knew exactly why he was placed in right field (He actually told me "Dad, we need to put our best fielders in the infield. And I'm not that good right now."), and he wasn't wounded but matter-of-fact about it. Instead of sulking, he worked hard with me to ensure that he could be the best right fielder he could be, playing catch with me and working with the coaches to get better. I couldn't be prouder of his self-awareness, his focus on the benefit of the team and his willingness to keep trying.

Two weeks ago, I think one of the best character lessons took place. Our four-team league entered the playoff stage, and his fourth-seeded Indians faced off against the top-seeded Yankees, who had lost only three times during the season. Surprisingly, Daniel and his mates jumped out to a huge lead against the Yankees and eventually after a final rally, they ended up leading 20 to 1, at which point the coach discreetly at the on-deck circle told Daniel and his teammates to purposely swing and miss at every pitch until the end of the game. Absent a league mercy rule, the coach took it upon himself to end the game himself.

When I asked Daniel about what happened, I tried to instill upon him the moral behind his coach's actions. I explained to him that there are times where actually "failing" is a good thing, because it's for the benefit of another person. Now granted, it was pretty clear in this case that continuing to milk walks and swing for the fences leading by such a large margin would be an egregious act of running up the score, especially for a Little League game for nine-year-olds (and to be fair, this wasn't a Hallmark Channel situation where the team forfeit their right to the championship game so they could advance the team with the kid who had cancer, or even the true story of how an opposing team 'negated' a technical foul for an opposing player who had recently lost his mother). But the principle of being less as a means to benefit others is an important one. It goes to the premise of altruism and sacrifice, when choosing the "less optimal" thing for yourself is the right thing to do. Daniel will have plenty of times in his life to choose the right thing in those sort of situations, and many of those decisions will be difficult.

As a side note, Daniel and the Indians went on to the Championship game a few days later and proceeded to win it all, 10-4 over the Red Sox. As Daniel was fortunate to be one of four kids in his league who were on back-to-back championship teams, the next character lesson will be realizing that winning championships in baseball isn't a entitlement.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

These Walls Are Funny...

One of my favorite movies of all time is the Shawshank Redemption, and when I was surfing the news one evening I came upon an article which seemed to be a case of life imitating art.

Walter Unbehaun, aged 74, recently robbed a bank and calmly waited for police to arrive in order to secure a return to prison, a place in which he spent almost his entire adult like; a place which he longed for as home. So just to clear, a free man walked in with no disguise walked into a bank and committed a crime, and expressed joy when the police came to him to take him away. The article describes Unbehaun as "bored and lonely" as he spent his days watching television or drawing. In a court filing he compared his life at the trailer park to living in a prison isolation "hole."

As a parallel, the Shawshank Redemption features a number of prisoners, one of which is Brooks Hatlen, an old-timer who expresses grief upon getting paroled. After struggling with adopting to life "on the outside", Brooks commits suicide, leaving his friends still in prison grappling with understanding why. As they mourn, one prisoner, Red, makes the following observation about the prison walls:
These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized... They send you here for life, and that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.
There's a lot of reasons why I love this film, but reading this article reminded me of how we easily fall in love with parts of our lives which are actually negative and destructive, but hold on tightly to them because, well.... they're comfortable. I'm not just talking about things such as addictions to drugs, alcohol or porn (all of which apply), but more subtle things such as a predisposition to be self-centered or self-focused, or an inclination to lash out in criticism and contempt as a means of masking one's own insecurity.

I'm convinced that a lot of what we'd call "sin" fits into this category. We know that these things are wrong and destructive, yet our souls and hearts are so broken and deceived that we succumb to the fallacy that we'd rather live lives as prisoners as opposed to living free. Jesus himself speaks about "proclaiming freedom for the prisoners" and his fulfillment of that prophesy. Tragically, like Brooks Hatlen and Walter Unbehaun, we too often look longingly at those prison walls.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Being Lost and Being Found

It's been almost a month and a half since Malaysian Air Flight 370 disappeared, and it's been interesting to our reaction to this bizarre event which is both mystery and tragedy. For the families of the passengers, there's surely an agonizing numbness and lack of closure it all. Clearly, there is realistically no possibility of the passengers having survived, but without proof positive of wreckage, the glimmer of hope of life still glimmers, arguably unhelpfully. Those left behind are left to not quite mourn and not quite hold out hope. It's a painful place to linger which wrestles between the guilt of losing hope and the foolishness of believing in a miracle.

For the rest of us who watch from a distance, the emotions more likely pivoted from alarm, shock, sadness, curiosity, perplexity and eventually a vague fascination, probably more similar the way we're suckers to slow down and rubberneck in front of a freeway car accident than we'd like to admit. The Daily Show's Jon Stewart hilariously (and rightfully) skewered CNN for it's over-the-top coverage of the missing flight. But can anyone blame CNN? Like any media and advertising-driven outlet, they're out for ratings, which driving up the price at which they can sell their advertising. If people weren't glued to the set watching, CNN wouldn't broadcast it.

So what is the fascination? Part of it can be the aforementioned garden-variety fascination with accidents, either with slice of morose "could it have happened to me?" on the side. I think there's also a bigger thing at play here, and that is the fear of being lost.

When you think of it, being lost is awful. In many ways, it's worse than being hated, disliked or despised, because at least in those cases, you're at least relevant. If you're lost, it can feel almost as if you don't matter. Being lost is terrifying because your safety, your security, even your very sense of direction are all stripped from you. There's a paralyzing helplessness.

I was thinking about this during Easter Weekend, and was buoyed by hope in remembering that at least spiritually, my state of being lost does not overwhelm God's desire and power to find me. This is and should always be a great comfort.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Child-Like Affections

When I went on vacation with my kids a few weeks ago, I found that we enjoyed a lot of things together. That is, we uniformly had strong positive feelings towards restaurants that we ate at and venues which we visited. Given the difference in age, preferences, tastes and life experiences between me and my kids, you might have expected a handful of things which they like which I found boring or vice versa. It never really happened. From the Alamo to the Riverwalk to the Witte Museum to SeaWorld, we all walked out glowing about how enjoyable our experience was.

The one thing for which we probably had the greatest divergence of opinion was our hotel.

Hotels are interesting that way. I have yet to meet a kid who didn't go nuts with joy with the prospect of staying at a hotel. I remembered being so jazzed up at staying at a Holiday Inn during a childhood visit to Washington, D.C. that I boisterously sang that hotel's commercial jingle as I sat in the tub. What is it about hotels? Is it the novelty of sleeping in somewhere besides your own bed (the same thing which make kid sleepovers similarly enticing)? Is it the prospect of having cable television (which obviously isn't a big treat for many kids who already have it at home)? Is it the free toiletries? Is it the thought that mom and dad won't yell at your as loud with strangers on either side of your hotel room only being separated by thin walls? Admittedly, part of it for me with the ability to take baths instead of a shower, where I could do tidal wave and boat adventures. My parents' were too cheap to be so wasteful of the water used for a tub bath (I love you mom and dad.) Anyway, I'm getting off topic here...

I travel some for my current job, but I used to travel crazy amounts during my management consultant years. The silver-lining to that travel was two-fold: First, I had ridiculous amounts of hotel points and airline miles, some of which were used to fully fund our honeymoon to Aruba. Second, despite our firms disregard to any sort of lifestyle stability, they at least had the courtesy to ensure that we were staying a nice hotels, so we were staying at upper-level Marriotts, Westins and Hiltons with an occasional Four Seasons stay sprinkled in.

Unfortunately, like a lot of heavy business travelers, this leads to a certain internal standards around overnight accommodations which contrast markedly from my childhood affinity towards any hotel room had a television with ESPN. Frankly, you might say that one becomes a bit of a snob. One takes for granted that the hotel ought to furnish soap, shower gels and shampoos made by The Body Shop and that the bed should be at least Westin Heavenly Bed quality. So as a snobby business travelers who was once fond with the prospect of a night away from home, what happened?

I bring this up because I think there's a bigger lesson and warning about losing that child-like gratefulness of the small things which make life terrific - and it happens naturally as we grow up. As toddlers, we used to find great joy about ripping open wrapping paper. As children, we used to love the toys which were inside the gift boxes. Now as adults, we fret that we shouldn't have been suckered into buying that extended warranty.

Jesus talks about the importance of being "child like" to enter the Kingdom of God, and Christians are constantly coming to grips with this exhortation. The common and correct interpretation speaks of the need to run to God as a child - in that we come to Him offering nothing but ourselves, completely bereft of anything we could possibly give an Almighty and Benevolent to earn His favor. His favor is a gift of grace, paid by Jesus on the Cross.

But I think there's another lesson how we live life gratefully with enthusiasm. In our lives which are increasingly marked by escalating means of entertainment, comfort and convenience, I wonder if we're getting increasingly hard to impress by anything anymore. We've experienced entertainment so stimulating and technological advances so mind-blowing that in the words of Marie Antoinette, "Nothing tastes." What might help is for us to recapture our child-like appreciation, and in the process recapturing our appreciation for the finer little things in life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Always Reliable Road Trip

I'm convinced that a young family can rarely go wrong cobbling up a road trip vacation. While the prospect of packing two adults and two or more kids into a car for a few hours may seem like Chinese water torture for some, I suspect that most families would find such an idea appealing. Of course, I bring my own nostalgic memories into my perceptions of the American Road Trip. My older brother and I used to sit in the back of our Dodge Coronet (and later, Honda Accord) and play games ranging from "Licence Plate Bingo" to "The Picnic Game" while listening in on a AM/FM radio cassette player which we would use to scan the airwaves for Top 40 music. My brother's imagination knew no bounds, so he's make up games in the backseat which would invariably leave us cracking up laughing. If the cliché is "getting there is half the fun", I'd have to say they might have undershot.

We spent this Spring Break taking a trip to San Antonio, partly because we want to leave no attraction within driving distance of our home unchecked (I partially addressed this in an earlier post), but we also wanted to do this three hour trip as "muscle-builder" for a longer ten-hour trip we'll take this summer. I'm happy to say that all of us had a blast.

San Antonio, I've learned, is really the tourist destination for anyone going to Texas. Houston and Dallas are much larger cities and have their share of things to do, but when it comes to the greatest concentration of attractions in any given metropolitan area, it's tough to beat San Antonio. The Riverwalk is great for all ages, and also within walking distance are the Alamo and a couple of Ripley's Believe it Or Not! museums. The Witte Museum, SeaWorld, Natural Bridge Caverns and Six Flags Fiesta Texas are short drives away, so there's always plenty to do. We went to most of these places during our four day trip, and we had a blast.

The road trip has changed over time, however. With minivans with fancy entertainment systems, kids in the back are no longer forced to come up with their own entertainment armed only with their imaginations. Instead, there's constant pleas of putting in X DVD or Y Book on CD and arguments over who should get to listen to what. It's not all negative, and in fairness, my wife and I did regulate the amount of "entertainment system" time we allowed the kids. I think it's just a microcosm of the broader change in how our kids are raised, entertained, and even taught. Imagination, paper-based and outdoor activities have lost ground to Internet-connected tablet and smartphones. But when it comes to kids experiencing new things, like a fresh exhibit at a museum, a lively city or a new landmark, the allure of electronics fade away just for a moment, and they have that same look of wonder that their parents had as kids many years ago.

There's still a lot to like about the American road trip. The spontaneity of finding a place to grab a bite and the camaraderie forged with shared experience still prevails. Good memories forged by new sights and sounds and family debriefs around "what did you like most about today?" are worth cherishing. All of the "side stuff", like starting our days by making waffles at the free hotel breakfast buffet and closing our nights with competitive games of charades at night - you can't ask for a sweeter four days than that.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Amazing Talent, Amazing Challenges

My family and I have enjoy watching the Olympics, and this year has been no different. It's been interesting to learn emerging sports which previously haven't been prominent in the Winter Olympics program. The first Winter Olympics that I somewhat remember was Sarajevo 1984, and I'm pretty sure that half-pipe and slope-style courses were but a gleam in the IOC's eye. It's a change to be patriotic and root for the United States without being over-the-top jingoistic and as far as family bonding time, you could do a lot worse.

But what I think is most compelling about the Olympics is the drama that comes along with people who are immensely gifted and talented trying to reach the pinnacle of their sport in the arena of competition. These are people who are the crème de la crème who have devoted years of their lives to a seminal moment to perform on the greatest world stage in their craft. And despite the clichés maintaining otherwise, their hard work won't necessarily yield success. For a moment they could have a bad day, be sick, endure equipment failure or run into a fluke patch of ice or a red-hot competitor and all they'll be left with is the platitudes of commentators and fans who celebrate a good effort that just fell short. And for many of these athletes, I suspect they'll go through this crisis of identity. What do you do when you've accomplished everything in your field? What do you do if you've failed and that window has now closed?

What I find interesting is how sports give us a glimpse of how identity and giftedness often are at play within our own lives. About a month ago, there was a raging controversy when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made a terrific play to clinch his team's ticket to the Super Bowl, then proceeded to publicly excoriate an opposing wide receiver in a bizarre rant on national television on how awesome he was and how his opponent was "trash". Sherman was ripped in the public and press for being a bad sportsman, unprofessional, classless and worse. Defenders of Sherman pointed out the fact that he grew up in the ghetto of Compton and went to Stanford (which I thought was irrelevant to criticism of his actions), that he was placed in the poor position of having to answer a reporter's question so close to the end of the game (which would hold weight except for the fact that other players have been in similar situations without succumbing to Sherman's actions), and that some of the criticism had racist overtones (which I agree, but that doesn't invalidate the legitimacy of the overall critique). I wasn't a big fan of what he did, but reflecting on his actions did make me cognizant of how tightly all of us can hold onto our own giftedness, and how this leads to how we subconsciously elevate ourselves above others (most of us, thankfully, don't have microphone which reveals our own hearts' pride and arrogance). This, of course, isn't ultimately going to end well, because at some point, Richard Sherman will no longer be at the top of his game and he'll be humbled.

These super-talented individuals also face remarkable challenges. Along with their gifts, they also bear the weight of mammoth expectations, and the struggle of how they cut through all of the static and voices around what defines success in their lives. So as I look at these Olympians, the vast majority of whom will turn from Sochi empty-handed, I think about my own life. Insomuch I put part of my identity in my career, what happens when I flame out and am unable to provide for my family? Or as I look at Richard Sherman, do I look upon my own successes humbly or do I view these as ammunition to feed an insecure ego?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pressure Not Worth Dying For

I loved my college experience, and one of the ways I express my affinity for my alma mater is by serving as an alumni interviewer. So twice during the "early admissions" cycle and twice during the "regular admissions" cycle, I volunteer my time to put a trembling prospective student under the microscope. I'd consider myself a tough, but fair interviewer - I don't go out of the way to trap or trick these high school seniors, but I do want to get a clear sense of who they are, what distinguishes them from other strong applicants and whether they've done their homework on my alma mater (which would lend credibility to their insistence that my school is "their number one choice").

But I also try to inject some kind humanity into my interviews. I usually open up with asking them about their senior year, and I'll encourage them to enjoy every moment of their second semester. "Kick back and enjoy the great memories you'll share with your friends," I'd tell them. "Your transcripts are locked down and you'll be free to learn without being fixated on test scores. Instead, you'll be dreaming about all the fun you'll have on your senior class trip and prom." At the end of the interview, I'd offer a firm handshake and again ask them to enjoy the rest of their senior year. "After all," I'd say, "I can say with high certainty that whether it's a Penn or another college, you're going to end up a great school where you'll meet great friends and experience great things. Don't let unnecessary stress about college ruin what should be a terrific senior year. A year from now you'll be in a good place. And five years from now you'll be in a good place, too!"

I thought about this when I sadly learned about the suicide of a young lady who was in her first year at Penn. Shortly after her death, Madison Holleran's father told journalists, “There was a lot more pressure in the classroom at Penn. She wasn’t normal happy Madison. Now she had worries and stress.” There seems to be a mental health element in Madison's death, but I think it's fair to say that the kind of stress that she faced is something that many high schoolers and college students can relate to. And while I can't fathom enduring pressure to the point of taking my own life, I do recall how jarring it was to be in a situation where things that were formerly easy (namely, academics) were suddenly more difficult. And I remember it not being particularly pleasant coming to the realization I wasn't "all that and a bag of chips" - college was full of academic and extracurricular overachievers who were far more impressive that I was. 

I can imagine through a lens of of a mentally-struggling mind, these emotions were magnified to the point of a despair more dark and hopeless than I can imagine. And now a young lady is gone because of it.

I close my interviews with my aforementioned words in part because I think this is what I hope that my own children would hear from my own voice, both through my actions and my words. I do push my kids to strive for excellence, but I try to deeply embed within them an ethos where once they've done their best, they can put their soul at rest and be at peace that God will open and close the right doors. They need not have their joy robbed by unnecessary pressure or stress. They ought not to waste hours of their lives questioning their value and identity on things which are peripheral. Their mother and I won't love them any more or less based upon how they do in school or where they go to college. They'll go where God wants them to go - and they'll be just fine.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Home Away From Home

Like many others, I returned to work and fielded the question that everyone gets on the first weekday of the new year: "How was your holiday?" Before soon, I had developed a response which I felt was the right balance between being non-dismissive without delving into unnecessary details, and it was pretty much this: "It was terrific, thanks. We stayed the first days locally and celebrated with friends here, spent Christmas morning at our home where we opened gifts, and then went back up to the northeast for ten days where we saw family and friends. It was the perfect amount of time back up there - not too long, and not too short - and we had a chance to spend time with just about everyone with whom we wanted to meet up." It was indeed a terrific Christmas holiday.

This was big milestone for the family as it was the first time the entire family (I had returned for a friend's wedding last summer) had returned to New Jersey since our move early last year. It was a trip that was highly anticipated and talked about for weeks around the dinner table, and as we finally arrived at Newark Airport on Christmas evening, there was an interesting duality of feeling that of "being home" and "coming for a visit".

On occasion, we'll ask the kids about whether they preferred Texas or New Jersey, and prior to our trip, our two older kids usually answered the former while our youngest answered the latter. The reason from my youngest daughter's preference is simple and heartwarming: "I miss grandma." But throughout our trip, all our kids developed a greater affinity for the Garden State. It could have been reacquainting themselves with old friends or even the opportunity to experience wintry weather that I'm not particularly a fan of. More recently when my son was asked about the question of which state he prefers, he capitulates and speaks fondly about his grandparents, cousins and snow.

We were visiting at the home of close friends in NJ when I told my daughter about that we need to get ready to leave. She burst into tears and sobbed about never being able to see these friends again. And as I held her and told her that to the contrary, we were blessed to have good friends in two places. I told her that we were fortunate that we would always have old friends who we could visit and share all of our exciting new experiences with while developing and deepening new friendships in our new home. And mathematically, we'd have more friends. It was sort of a more heartfelt version of the "more is better" AT&T wireless commercial.

But in comforting my daughter, I was able to articulate the gladness of the life that I have - that I think we all have - now. There's something to be said about stability, longevity and growing deep roots - I get that. But if the providence of God brings us to another place, and then another, and then another... we'll be okay. We're in a good place. We're in good hands.