Thursday, October 8, 2015

Anonymity and legacy

Perhaps it's being in transition. Perhaps it's moving some distance from family. Perhaps it's reading Victor Hugo's monumental Les Misérables. Perhaps something else has been the catalyst, but recently I've been musing some about legacies and the anonymity with which most people live and die.

Consider two individuals who were not anonymous and who were near contemporaries two millennia ago. First, Julius Caesar imposed himself on the shaky structures of the Roman republic, transforming it into an empire. He is survived by some of his writings, his image memorialized in sculpture and coins that still survive, and the month of July was named in his honor. The twenty-first century world is certainly different because of Caesar, but without knowing what this century would be like had Julius Caesar never lived it is difficult to specify the differences attributable to him.

Second, Jesus of Nazareth left no writings and no actual likeness of him survives, if one was even made. Yet the world is assuredly different because of Jesus. In some way, of which scholars debate virtually every detail, Jesus' relationship with his closest followers so moved them that after his death they formed what began as a new Jewish sect and quickly morphed into a new religion, Christianity. Claims that Jesus rose from the dead are the most facile explanation of what happened. Most non-Christians reject that claim. And among Christians diverse, contradictory explanations of Jesus' alleged resurrection have contended for adherents, persisting in spite of efforts by an orthodoxy established in the fourth century to suppress all competing views as heresy. Other explanations of Jesus' life-altering effect on his original followers usually emphasize his personal charisma.

The world is better and worse because of Jesus. By at least one historian's count, religion caused approximately ten percent of all wars. Presume Christianity caused a substantial portion of those wars. Christianity also has contributed to the evils of colonialism, racism, sexism, etc. Conversely, Christianity has inspired great altruism that has stopped wars, fed the hungry, cared for the sick, motivated educational and charitable organizations, inspired support for human rights, etc. Assessing the magnitude of the evil attributed to Christianity seems a simpler task than assessing the magnitude of the good attributable to Christianity. Much of the evil is both visible and specific: the number of people killed or injured, the amount of property damaged, etc. Of course, the injury to minds, with the follow-on second or third order effects, is impossible to quantify. Conversely, measuring the number of lives saved or bettered by a physician who cares for the sick because of Jesus represents a much more difficult calculation: the number of the physician's patients may be known, but the percent who would have died if not treated by that physician is indeterminable. Furthermore, the good done to minds, with follow-on second and third order effects, like the evil done to minds, is unquantifiable.

I expect to die in anonymity, even as I have happily chosen to live in anonymity. My writings, much as I might occasionally wish to the contrary, will soon pass into oblivion, even on the internet. The few extant likenesses of me (photographs, sketches, digital images, etc.) will soon disappear, lose any tag that identifies the likeness with me, or pass into the hands of people who never knew me and have no interest in preserving my memory. I will happily give my allotted 15 minutes of fame to any successful claimant.

Children are the most common way in which people hope to leave a mark upon the world. Jesus sired no known offspring. Julius Caesar's biological children all died at a relatively young age; they are no more than footnotes to his life. Christianity remembers Jesus' presents. Caesar's parents are forgotten. In both cases, neither man would have changed the world had it not been for his parents. In common with an increasing number of people in the developed world, I will leave no progeny.

Consequently, the relative handful of people I have known in my life (they total in the thousands, but on a globe populated by seven billion people, this is a relative handful) constitute the most probable way in which my living will have made a difference. Nobody has the wisdom and knowledge to identify, much less quantify, the good – and the inevitable even if unintentional evil – that I have done. Incidentally, some cultures have employed the idea of an all-knowing being who rewards the good and punishes the bad (.e.g., God, according to some Islamic, Christian, and other theological traditions; Santa Claus in folklore) to motivate good behavior and dissuade putative miscreants.

If biologists are correct and genes have an inherent drive to perpetuate themselves, then humans – an arguably unique species because of our limited autonomy and spirituality – have a similar, inherent drive to perpetuate ourselves through some form of legacy.

What is the legacy you wish to leave?

Do you wish the world to remember you as a statesperson, military leader, author, inventor, artist, or?

Do you wish the world to remember you personally or simply to leave the world a different, hopefully better, place because you lived?

Do you wish your legacy to be like that of Jesus, where the individual is forgotten (Christian theologians describe this as kenosis, self-emptying), and the lives of others changed for the good (the abundant life that so many of those who live in Jesus' name continue to experience)?

Monday, October 5, 2015

The power of illusion

In a couple of previous Ethical Musings' posts (Fear of failure and living abundantly and Further ruminations on the fear of failure), I reflected about some of my observations of military and government bureaucracy. In this post, I explore the effect that those security measures (armed patrols, sentry stations that permit public access, and different levels of force protection at different gates to a single military facility) have on outsiders.

For many casual observers, the measures improve the military installation's security. That is, the measures create the illusion of security. Dedicated, putative miscreants (imagine a hardcore terrorist, for example) can easily replicate my observations. Such individuals would presumably also observe the times and patterns (if any) of patrols, the type of weapons carried, potential fields of fire, whether any entering vehicles are ever searched, and so forth. At best, these security measures reduce the already very low probability of a non-dedicated putative miscreant harming someone (imagine an unhappy but mentally healthy teen). However, I know from multiple conversations over many years with many people that the visible security measures, no matter their potential effectiveness, give the majority of people an illusion of security.

Similarly, some knowledgeable counterterrorism officials believe that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is almost completely a waste of federal money. Air travel is safer because flight crews and passengers are committed to never again allowing a passenger plane to become a weapon of mass destruction. (To learn more, read my book, Just Counterterrorism.) Yet, the TSA gives many passengers the feeling that air travel is safe. We humans tend to prefer the illusion of security to the reality that life is inherently vulnerable and that all of us share a common fate; the only unknown is when we will die, not whether we will die.

Illusion – the belief that something is true – is powerful. Norman Vincent Peale (the power of positive thinking), Robert Schuller (the power of possibility thinking), and numerous others have capitalized on this power creating popular self-programs.

Conversely, an illusion may become self-limiting. A person begins to believe that he/she is incompetent at a particular task or at living in toto or a person hears from others and then in their own conscious mind that he/she is inferior, second-rate, or less of value than others.

Illusion detached from reality is indicative of mental illness (imagine the person who, believing he/she can fly, leaps off a tall building). Alternatively, the person so mired in an ugly reality that she/he has no vision of a better future is condemned to a miserable subsistence that can never become abundant living (imagine an incest survivor trapped in endlessly reliving memories of those horrific experiences).

Spiritual leadership consists in large measure of being a catalyst to help people imagine a better future for themselves, a future grounded in reality yet a future that pushes the individual to become more alive, move loving, and more fully realize his/her potential. A mentor, friend, parent, or stranger may provide this leadership through words, actions, or even a chance encounter. Similarly, what a person reads, hears, or sees may also be a source of spiritual leadership, transforming the person's life. Religious traditions value their scriptures because so many persons have found engaging those scripture to be a catalyst that opened a new perspective on life.

How does illusion function in your life? What are your illusions? Are your illusions grounded in reality? How do your illusions limit your growth or serve as a catalyst to help you become more fully human?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Aloha to the Anglican Communion

The Hawaiian word aloha, since the nineteenth century, has come to have three meanings in English. Each meaning is applicable to the future of the Anglican Communion.

First, and most consistent with the word's Polynesian roots, aloha may mean love, peace, or compassion. Members of the Anglican Communion, all members of Christ's body, appropriately have feelings of love, peace, and compassion for one another. The conflicts of the last two decades within the Communion have tested, strained, and, sometimes, broken those bonds. However, genuine aloha should set the tone for relationships between the churches, leaders, and individual members of the Anglican Communion.

Second, aloha also means hello. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, has convened a January 2016 summit of the primates of the Anglican Communion's constituent churches. He has also invited the head of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) to attend part of the meeting. Heretofore, the ACNA has been excluded from Anglican meetings. Geography, historical ties to the Church of England's missionary efforts, and ongoing communion with the see of Canterbury, not a group's use of the word Anglican or theological/liturgical claims of being Anglican, has defined who is and is not Anglican.

Times of changed. Canon Giles Fraser of St. Paul's Cathedral in London contends in a column in The Guardian that the internet and hypertext sealed the fate of a hierarchy being able to define a group's theological identity. In my experience, few people in the pews of US Episcopal congregations or those of the Church of England understand, much less care about, the Anglican Communion. Anglicanism has always been a muddled approach to Christianity, as Andrew Gerns at the Episcopal Café has editorialized. So, let's say hello to a new model of being Christian together, one that forsakes structural and doctrinal unity for promoting communication, broadening horizons, honoring differences, seeking commonalities, and together incarnating God's love as and when possible.

Third, aloha also means goodbye. It's time to farewell efforts to develop an Anglican covenant and perhaps to the Lambeth convocations of bishops. The former is, in nautical terminology, dead in the water. Archbishop Rowan Williams' commendable efforts to preserve the Anglican Communion through establishing minimal doctrinal and structural unity failed. The latter, the Archbishop of Canterbury convening a gathering of all Anglican bishops once every ten years, was during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the best mechanism for preserving ties within the Anglican Communion. However, as much as individual bishops value their Lambeth experiences (and many do), new options now exist for creating ties between members of the Communion that would involve significantly more people at a much lower cost, e.g., multiple ways to establish relationships at all levels using the internet.

Instead of wasting time and energy bemoaning its demise, saying aloha to the old and the new represents a constructive step forward.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Further ruminations on the fear of failure

Early in my first assignment, which was at Pearl Harbor, I remember several lengthy conversations with the destroyer squadron commander for whom I worked. He was very concerned, as was I, about motorcycle accidents annually claiming the lives of almost a dozen young sailors in the squadron, usually involving alcohol and excessive speed. He thought the Captain of the sailor's ship responsible for the sailor's death. I disagreed. I maintained that if the ship's skipper had done everything reasonable to avoid motorcycle fatalities – having quality programs to teach motorcycle safety, to stress compliance with vehicle laws, to deglamorize alcohol consumption and promote safe behaviors, etc. – some young sailors would still chose to behave irresponsibly.

The squadron commander adamantly insisted that the ship's Captain was responsible: a motorcycle accident fatality constituted prima facie evidence that the Captain had failed to take effective action. I, conversely, maintained that sailors had some measure of autonomy and no set of measures existed whereby a Captain could ensure that none of his crew would become a motorcycle accident fatality. The squadron commander and I never resolved our disagreement, though we did develop a mutual respect that grew into lasting friendship.

I soon realized that an ethos of accountability coupled with an expectation of zero defects in all things permeated the military. The aim for zero defects, often without an emphasis on accountability more broadly seems to characterize the federal government (remember recent Department of Veterans Affairs' scandals in which managers tried to deflect blame instead of accept responsibility).

In my third assignment as a chaplain at a Naval Air Station, I had numerous conversations with pilots. In subsequent assignments, my circle of dialogue partners included test pilots, astronauts, surgeons, and nuclear engineers. Sometimes, we should aim for zero defects (who wants to awaken from surgery to find that the wrong body part was removed or sail aboard a nuclear powered submarine in which the reactor is likely to fail?). In these conversations, my dialogue partners and I would frequently seek to identify those times when a zero defect mentality is essential, when can help, and when it is counter-productive.

Occasionally, I would encounter someone for whom perfection in all things was the goal. Such individuals inevitably suffered from overwork, experienced great frustration, and never achieved success. Conversely, I have also known individuals who never strove to achieve excellence, always satisfied with the minimum required effort and minimum required standards.

Abundant living entails an individual accepting some measure of responsibility for one's destiny (nobody is in complete control of her/his destiny) and then deciding when to aim for excellence (or even perfection) and when "good enough" will suffice.