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.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fear of failure and living abundantly

Recently, I spent three weeks living in the Hale Koa hotel in Waikiki, which is part of the Armed Forces recreation network of facilities. These facilities operate without direct support from tax dollars and offer reasonably affordable recreational programs and facilities to military personnel, their families, and, if they have extra capacity, to retirees. The Hale Koa has greatly expanded since I first stayed there in 1981 (a stay that lasted a significant 40 days and nights, if one is into biblical numerology, while I looked for housing at the beginning of my first Hawaiian assignment).

In addition to the expansion, and some obvious fraying around the edges from heavy use over the decades, the security changes, probably initiated post 9/11, caught my attention. The Department of Defense funds security at the Hale Koa. Armed military police, wearing body armor, now patrol the 72-acre site. Yet the site lacks any fence, wall, or other perimeter barrier. The beach, extensive lawns, and at least one of the bars is open to the public. Additionally, people driving to the main porte cochère must stop at a sentry post. The sentry, an armed military policeman, requires the driver to show a valid driver's license; Fort DeRussy is open to the public.

The patrols and sentry may provide Hale Koa patrons with an illusion of security. These measures, however, would not stop anyone who is intent on engaging in criminal behavior. Unsurprisingly, no other Waikiki hotel has a sentry or similarly armed personnel patrolling their facilities.

Similarly, when I visited Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, I was surprised to find that the security at one gate included concrete barriers, a watchtower, and other measures while at another gate security consisted of a chain link fence barring incoming traffic but allowing outgoing traffic to exit unmonitored.

I collected all of this information through casual observation. Only days later did I begin to ponder the utility of these security measures. Successful for-profit businesses generally evaluate the cost-effectiveness of their operations. On the other hand, almost every government official and politician whom I met during my Navy service feared the adverse consequences of failing to take every feasible measure to prevent bad things from happening.

For example, the federal government aims to have no fraudulent, wasteful, or abusive expenditures. That is a commendable goal. Ironically, the federal bureaucracy, driven by elected officials responding to perceived political pressures, wastes millions of dollars in pursuing the impossible goal of avoiding all fraud, waste, and abuse. Policies and programs must prevent all fraud, waste, and abuse regardless if the costs of preventative measures exceed potential savings. Conversely, for-profit enterprises implement steps to stop theft, fraud, etc., only when those steps are cost-effective.

In short, a fear of failure shapes the choices at work of most military leaders, an even higher percentage of government civilian workers, and virtually all politicians. The result is a culture of mediocrity. Identifiable failure or sub-par performance – rather than producing excellent results – is the primary determinant of an individual's future career prospects. Unlike avoiding failure, achieving excellence requires that people take risks, experiment with new approaches, choose how well to perform each task, and identify what failure rate is acceptable.

In what ways does fear of failing limit your pursuit of excellence, your choice of goals, and your ability to live abundantly?

Monday, September 21, 2015

International Peace Day

Today, September 21, is International Peace Day. Working for peace and peace as the flourishing of creation, not simply the absence of violence, are frequent themes in my Ethical Musings' posts (e.g., cf. Bending the arc of history toward peace).

On International Peace Day, I commend three themes:
  1. Cultivate personal inner peace. The path to inner peace lies in learning to trust that with God's help all, in the words of Julian of Norwich, will be well. When things go wrong, when bad things happen, the person with inner peace faces the future with equanimity knowing that God holds the person firmly in God's hands. Some Christians have found that exposure to Buddhism has helped them to understand and to experience the possibility of genuine inner peace.
  2. Cultivate relational peace. The path to relational peace lies in learning to value and to respect all other persons, life forms, and things as God's creations. Some Christians have found helpful reminders about the possibility of relational peace in studying Confucianism and Taoism. I particularly remember a Chinese woman I met in London who had lived in Hawaii, been an Anglican nun, and had taught aikido. Her memory reminds me of the interconnectedness of the whole creation and that ultimately the goal of well-being and flourishing is achievable only when achieved for all creation.
  3. Strive to build global peace. The path to global peace lies in expanding the scope of inner peace and relational peace to include the whole earth. This entails both building alliances with others who share the same goal and becoming active in the political process. Building global peace requires individual and communal effort. Forsaking war is one vital step. Forsaking economic and political exploitation are two more steps. No one person or nation can take these steps unilaterally.

What would your life, your relationships, and the world be like if every day each of us took a step to incarnate those three themes?

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Hawaii has a major problem with homeless people. The year-round great weather makes Hawaii one of the best places in the world to live rough. In my three weeks on Oahu, I have seen hundreds of homeless persons.

Unsurprisingly, now, as twenty-years ago, I repeatedly hear the urban legend that other states give their homeless a one-way plane ticket to Hawaii, sending the homeless to an attractive destination and foisting a potential problem onto another government.

Living without a fixed place of residence the past several months has given me a personal appreciation of the plight of the homeless.

First, getting mail is a problem. The Postal Service does not rent boxes to individuals who cannot prove their identity and demonstrate a fixed place of residence. Mailbox services, of which I have used two, supposedly have the same rules. Thankfully, their rates are lower than are the Postal Service's rates and their personnel more understanding. I receive little mail, but some of what I receive is vital, e.g., credit cards or mail from financial institutions.

Second, opening a bank account without an address – at least a mailbox somewhere – is probably impossible. Again, firms and personnel have been cooperative, bending rules that require not only a mailing address but also a fixed place of abode. However, I suspect that requirements for both a mailing and physical address can easily become an insurmountable for many homeless people.

All of the above contributes to the financial plight of the homeless, some – probably a minority – of whom are entitled to social security (old age, disability, etc.) or have other sources of income that they may find impossible to access. In other words, the system contributes to exacerbating and perpetuating the problems of the homeless.

Third, some homeless people have cell phones. I saw a woman visit a Satellite City Hall office in Honolulu while I was there registering my car. She came in, sat down, plugged in her phone, and let it charge. I wondered: Could she, if necessary, get a replacement phone? Would she have difficulty signing up for an email account? Where could she access her email account or surf the net? These items are not luxuries; they are how our society functions and connects people one with another.

Fourth, many of the homeless have mental health issues. For example, while her phone was charging, the homeless woman in the Satellite City Hall office sat by herself, taking no note of anyone else in the room, and carried on a conversation, complete with hand gestures and facial expressions, with an invisible partner. For others of the homeless, the mental health issues may involve depression, addiction, and other problems. Seeing people lying on the sidewalk in the middle of the day, their few possessions – most of which are apparently worthless – piled around them, underscores how many homeless people are homeless precisely because they cannot cope, even in the best of times, with twenty-first century life.

Fifth, some of the homeless I see are infants or children who are living rough with one or two adults, presumably at least one of whom is their parent. I wonder if an adult's mental illness has caused the family's problems or if an adult's unfortunate choices have resulted in their homelessness. If the latter, then helping the family get back on its feet represents a great social investment. I've never met a mentally healthy person who wanted to live on the streets (and I spent several months, early in my ministry, working with the homeless in Nashville). And if the former, then I doubly concerned about the children's welfare: not only are they living on the street but their primary caregiver(s) lacks the skills to care for self, let alone care for others.

Honolulu has enacted sit-lie laws that criminalize sitting/lying on the street in the same place for 24 consecutive hours. Honolulu has also empowered its police officers to move the homeless out of certain tourist and commercial areas, e.g., Waikiki. The laws have shifted the homeless from one area to another but do nothing to address the real problem.

Incidentally, I could extend my observations about the homeless to include comments about their difficulty in obtaining transportation, their need for sanitary facilities, their right to healthcare and food, etc. Similarly, the homeless can impede business and make other citizens feel uncomfortable if not unsafe. Unlike some cities, I have not seen Honolulu's homeless begging, trying to wash windows of cars stopped at traffic lights, or engaging in many other problematic behaviors.

The Institute for Human Services (IHS), founded by an Episcopal priest decades ago, has undertaken an initiative to help the homeless get off the streets. In about a third of the cases, IHS has helped the homeless move into a shelter. In about a third of the cases, IHS has connected the homeless with family who have taken the first in and will provide ongoing care. And in about a third of the cases, IHS efforts to help have produced no discernible, significant results.

Imagine two-thirds of the homeless no longer living on the streets! Criticizing those results is easy. Achieving better results may be impossible. A community that cares about its citizens can improve life for everyone by establishing top-notch group homes (a better long term alternative than shelters) and by reconnecting people with family.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Words to ponder

A woman whom I saw recently in Waikiki was carrying a cloth shoulder bag. These words, worth remembering and pondering frequently, were printed on the bag in large letters:
Learn from yesterday
Live for today

Hope for tomorrow

Friday, September 11, 2015

Some initial observations about Hawaii

Returning to Honolulu to live here after an absence, except for several relatively brief visits, of twenty years has been interesting. The feeling sometimes approximates a sense of déjà vu, with much having remained the same and much having changed.

Some good things have remained constant, e.g., a widespread sense of aloha experienced in friendliness and helpfulness. Other things, such as traffic congestion for example, have predictably changed for the worse because Oahu's population has grown.

However, several things are remarkably different from when I first lived in Hawaii thirty-five years ago and highlight broader changes.

First, multiculturalism has increased. Menus in Waikiki are now often printed in English and Japanese, sometimes also in Chinese and Korean. Many people in the service industries now speak at least a limited amount of one or more Asian languages. In short, Waikiki tourism has become much more customer centric, similar to tourism in Europe and developed portions of Asia.

Second, the world is more interconnected. The numbers of tourists from Australia, China, and Russia have significantly increased. Thirty-five years ago, the US and Soviet Union were engaged in the Cold War. Anyone speaking Russian, or Russian accented English, would have aroused immediate suspicion. Today, I hear Russian and Russian accented English in Waikiki more often than I hear any other European language or accent (in over two weeks, I've heard Spanish spoken only once or twice).

Similarly, thirty-five years ago, few if any citizens of the People's Republic of China (PRC) would have dared to flaunt the wealth required to visit Hawaii nor would the US have welcomed tourists from the PRC. Today, China owns a substantial portion of the US national debt, US imports of Chinese goods far exceed Chinese imports of US goods, and Chinese tourists help to reverse that negative balance of payments problem. The world, in Thomas Friedman's memorable words, is becoming flat.

Third, the weather has changed. Thirty-five years ago, few people in Hawaii gave much thought to the annual hurricane season. Now, 2015 appears on track to set a record for the number of named storms in the Pacific. Locals frequently comment that the extended period of high humidity, high temperatures, and low winds is atypical. Climate change is real.

Fourth, economic inequality has increased. On the one hand, over a dozen new condominium buildings are under construction, each with hundreds of units. In some of the buildings, the lowest priced studio sells for nearly $1 million. In the buildings touted as affordable housing, one-bedroom units (these buildings don't include studios) start at a price upwards of $250,000. On the other hand, the number of people living rough on the streets has visibly increased. In one park, through which I occasionally biked twenty years ago, I might have then seen four or five people living rough but now there are, by the City's count, upwards of two hundred people squatting there. Only two of the service industry people with whom I have chatted live in Waikiki: one owns a restaurant; the other is part of a two-income family with multiple income sources. The wealthy are getting wealthier, leaving the poor behind.

Incidentally, the tax plans that the Republican candidates for president have advanced are ethically troubling. All but one of these plans calls for cutting tax rates on the highest earning Americans, expecting that this will generate economic benefits for all Americans. That expectation, known as supply side economics and practiced by both Reagan and George W. Bush, reduced federal tax revenues, resulted in larger federal deficits, and expanded economic inequality. No reason exists to think that future tax cuts will achieve a different result. (This reminds me of the popular definition of stupid, i.e., repeating an action while expecting a different result.) The exception to my generalization about GOP tax plans is Donald Trump's plan. I like very little about the idea of a Trump presidency, but do agree with Trump that the wealthy should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the middle-class or poor pay.

Monday, September 7, 2015

New museum of the Bible - who cares?

The founder of the privately held company, Hobby Lobby, is once again in the news. As you may recall, Hobby Lobby entrepreneur Steve Green, previously protested against having to provide full healthcare benefits (e.g., contraception) to his employees. Now, Green has funded a new Museum of the Bible, set to open in a location near the US Capitol.

Who cares?

Unsurprisingly, a sizable number of people object for various reasons. First, some people object because the museum's proximity to the Capitol suggests an inappropriate mixing of religion and politics. I reply: What's new about this? Furthermore, I'm strongly support the presence of religion in the public square. Religious groups and perspectives, like other groups and perspectives, have a right to participate in public discourse.

Second, some people object because the museum may become an effective means of evangelical propaganda (aka evangelism). I reply (with a yawn): Anyone gullible enough to find an assortment of artifacts related to the Bible sufficiently persuasive to commit to evangelical Christianity would probably have the same commitment at the next convenient opportunity. As I have repeatedly contended in Ethical Musings' posts, the Bible is at best understood as a window or source of metaphors about life's deepest mystery and not a sourcebook of propositional truth.

What I find disturbing about this controversy is the lack of Christian concern that the money used to fund the Museum of the Bible is being used unethically. Jesus did not build any museums. Instead, he fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, stood firm against the forces of oppression, called for people to live justly, and worked for peace. The national mall does not need another museum; instead, the nation needs people who live more justly and love more fully.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Bible and culture

Dennis Eric Nineham was a British theologian and academic, who served as Warden of Keble College, Oxford, from 1969 to 1979, as teaching theology at the universities of London, Cambridge, and Bristol. I have frequently consulted his commentary on Mark's gospel. Recently, I came across this statement from him that explains why contemporary people find traditional Christian doctrine incomprehensible and why Christianity requires constant reinterpretation:
... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before. (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

In a cosmos characterized by constant change, presuming that humans alone remain unchanging makes no sense. Consequently, imagining that human thoughts about the cosmos, its nature, and its creator should be fixed also makes no sense.

The mystery of the cosmos is one into which each human is privileged to live. Theology, at its very best, is an individual endeavor in which a person attempts to express in words how she or he seeks to make that mystery intelligible. Thus, theology is inescapable and few endeavors are more challenging, exasperating, potentially rewarding than theology.

What is your description – in words, images, or sounds – of that mystery?