Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Does Being "Nice, Gentle & Kind" Still Count?

"He is the nicest, gentlest, kindest guy you will ever meet … to everything except the baseball, he still hits that really hard." -Michael Cuddyer on Jim Thome

Jim Thome (see articles by Tim Kurkjian and Jayson Stark) hit his 600th homerun last night. Only 7 guys have done it besides him and 3 of those (Bonds, Sosa, and Rodriguez) have all been linked to steroid usage. He is one of the greatest power hitters of all time, and certainly deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Remarkably he has not received a lot of press, more than likely because of his temperament and the fact that Cleveland and now Minnesota are not exactly big markets. But what seems to be most incredible about the guy is how other professional baseball players view him.

How many people are genuinely known to be nice, kind and gentle? To be more blunt, how many men are known for those characteristics? Today's American culture desires strong men, powerful men, and men who have "it" - whatever it might be. Rarely do you hear people seeking a nice guy. In fact the nice guy is at an all time low in terms of desirability. And yet here you have a prominent major league slugger who is known for his gentleness in personality if not his ability to hit a ball 500 feet. Teammates, opponents, coaches, members of the media, clubhouse workers, and the casual fan all encounter a guy who is so genuine and caring they are left deeply impressed. It might not get him front page press, but in the end he is the type of guy you want to be around, you want to emulate and you hope your kids turn out like. Perhaps its time we start re-evaluating our priorities and tastes in America. We need more men like Jim Thome - who recognize that being nice, gentle and kind is a helluva lot better than being an asshole...even if you lose out on publicity.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Aaron Rodgers

"I think if you're depressed about the current state of athletes - their greed, their ego, their selfishness - spend some time around Aaron Rodgers. He's what's right about sports."

(P.S. I loved his "People who live in Wisconsin and Minnesota must have a mandatory high school class in Pleasantness" comment as well!)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Inspiration of Trenton

His 2,400 Americans, having been on their feet all night, wet, cold, their weapons soaked, went into the fight as if everything depended on them. Each man "seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward," Washington wrote.


"The troops behaved like men contending for everything that was dear and valuable," Knox wrote to Lucy.

John Hancock said that the victory at Trenton was all the more "extraordinary" given that it had been achieved by men "broken by fatigue and ill-fortune." [He continued with] "But troops properly inspired, and animated by a just confidence in their leader will often exceed expectation, or the limits of probability."
David McCullough, 1776, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 280, 282, 284.
The story of Washington & his troops crossing the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 has always been riveting to me. George Washington is a near mythical being in American history and the story has many legendary & fanciful elements to it. That a group of soldiers near death with nothing more than inspiration to live on could surprise and defeat a group of 1500 trained mercenaries is incredible. Though small in stature, the skirmish would be a catalyst for belief in the movement of independence. McCullough does an excellent job at creating the culture of fear & disappointment that dominated America in light of the power the British showed throughout most of 1776. One small victory (two if you count Princeton) would foster growth & trust in the American vision. What is critical for us today is to take historical events and not only remember their great significance to the shaping of today's world but how we can profit from their lessons as well. Here are a few things I am pondering in light of my recent reading of the battle.

The American soldiers were in a dreadful state. They were without hope & utterly destitute in their belongings and physical state. Yet despite their awful state - they pushed forward as if they could make a difference. They believed in rest on their shoulders to win and so stopped at nothing to make it happen. Do I believe this of myself? Do I push forward in my own role in the mission carved out for my life as if it depends completely upon me to make it work? If I do - then it doesn't matter how bad things get, I will push forward because I believe it is absolutely necessary for me to do so.

Next, the soldiers were fighting for the "dear and valuable" in their minds, lives, and world. The incredible lengths they went to were done without thought because it would have been insane not to. Quitting is not an option when you are fighting for what you believe in. I need to reorder my priorities to make sure I am constantly focused on the dear & valuable. It is when those goals are my focus that I will find the fight within me to put it all on the line. It is not possible to give it all when you don't believe in the end result. If I find myself not giving my all, I must question whether my intended goal is either not dear and valuable or whether I have lost my priorities.

Finally, the troops "exceeded expectation, or the limits of probability" because of inspiration. This has two parts to it in importance. The first deals with the ability to exceed expectation. It is easy to set limits on what can happen based upon the probability of such happenings. The problem is when we allow those limits to then set the bar upon which we will not seek to climb higher. In other words, once we have hit the target we stop pushing beyond. I must not allow myself to simply hit the finish line - I must desire to move beyond. Goals are great - but we need to believe we can continuously accomplish so much more than we believe. The second part deals with finding the inspiration to encourage. This either comes from the cause we are fighting for itself or the leaders we choose to follow. Mentors play such a huge role in life. The more inspiring the mentor, the more likely they will help us move beyond the finish line. Therefore it is absolutely important to pick & find causes and leaders that constantly get us to stretch ourselves beyond what we think we are capable of doing. When we have confidence in that which is biding us to push forward, we will not limit ourselves even when, like the American soldiers, we lack the "necessary tools & abilities" to do so.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Meet the Packers Mr. President

One of the perks of winning the Super Bowl is getting a tour of the White House & meeting with the President. What makes it even better is having the Bears fan President Obama having to congratulate the Packers. Looking forward to another football season. Go Pack Go!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What is the role of Congress?

When it comes to the government, I think the President often gets more blame & more credit than he (some day she) ever deserves. The real questions for me center on the role of Congress. A lot of our issues with the ineffectiveness of Washington center on the Senate & House. With that in mind, its critical we understand a particular passage of the Constitution. Over the course of the next few weeks I will be examining a few parts of Article 1, Section 8 dealing with the powers of Congress. For now, here's a look at what exactly Congress is "expected" to do...
  • The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imports and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
  • To borrow money on the credit of the United States;
  • To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
  • To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
  • To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
  • To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
  • To establish Post Offices and Post Roads;
  • To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
  • To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
  • To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
  • To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
  • To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
  • To provide and maintain a Navy;
  • To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
  • To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
  • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
  • To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings; And
  • To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Military-Industrial Complex

"A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction...

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together." -Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1961-

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dr. No


Ron Paul is growing on me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Scott Adams on the Budget

Here are the thoughts of Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) on the new budget plan. Pure genius.

Congress allegedly agreed on a budget plan last night. The great thing about this plan is that both sides can blame the other when the economy continues its long march into the crapper. Conservatives will say we didn't cut the budget enough. Liberals will say the decrease in government spending will choke off growth and make things worse. Who's right?

Democrats like to point to the Clinton era as proof that the economy can flourish even as taxes are increased. But how would things have fared in the Clinton years without the Dotcom bubble? Beats me. You don't know either.

Economies usually find their direction from large, unpredictable events, such as wars and other disasters, moving from communism to capitalism, huge demographic shifts, and irrationality that leads to economic bubbles. For any given ten-year period, luck is the biggest driver of a nation's economy. But what single factor is most predictive of, say, a nation's fifty-year economic direction? I think it's the L-to-E ratio (lawyers-to-engineers).

My hypothesis is that the best indicator of long term economic health is the number of engineers a country produces relative to the number of lawyers. A country that is cranking out more engineers than lawyers will trend up. A country that is moving toward a lawyer-heavy economy will grind to a stop.

This idea is nothing more than a wordy way of saying, "To a man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Engineers build stuff and lawyers sue people. If we assume both professions like to stay busy all the time, you need more engineers than lawyers to create net growth. And I think you'd agree that the countries with the best engineers also win wars and survive disasters the best.

I tried and failed to Google some statistics to back up my hypothesis. Anecdotally, the idea seems about right. I can't think of a country with a strong economy that isn't also known for its engineering prowess.

Some of you will argue that education in general is the biggest predictor of success. But I think you'd agree that if everyone started majoring in English, we'd all starve to death with impeccable grammar.

My take on the budget compromise is that any budget that doesn't kill us right away will be good enough. Our economic fate is primarily in the hands of engineers. And when our collective cynicism reverts back to its baseline, maybe we'll be lucky
enough to have another economic bubble. I hope so. I enjoy those while they last.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bill of Rights

I bumped into a guy last week while working my landscaping job. He was putting in new flooring at a cabin and we got into a conversation. I discovered quickly that he was a product of guys like Rush Limbaugh who make a living tell people what to be afraid of and who to blame for that fear. He was convinced the United States was on the verge of collapse and would soon be controlled under the regime of a guy like Hitler. Although I was not impressed with his theories, he did bring a valuable point in terms of the Constitution. He asked whether or not I could name all 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights. I did not answer him but truth be told I was not sure of all ten. The more I thought about it that day the more disappointed I was in myself. After all, the Constitution was only ratified by the original states because of the limitations on the National Government specified by the Bill of Rights. In other words, these ten precious amendments were required before people would even consider allowing the national government to form and replace the Articles of Confederation. If we do not know what they are, how are we suppose to know when/if the federal government violates them? So without further ado...


1st: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

2nd: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

3rd: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

4th: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

5th: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

6th: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

7th: In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

8th: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

9th: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

10th: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Objects of Confidence

But Nathanael Greene was no ordinary man. He had a quick, inquiring mind and uncommon resolve. He was extremely hardworking, forthright, good-natured, and a born leader. His commitment to the Glorious Cause of America, as it was called, was total. And if his youth was obvious, the Glorious Cause was to a large degree a young man's cause. The commander in chief of the army, George Washington, was himself only forty-three. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, was thirty-nine, John Adams, forty, Thomas Jefferson, thirty-two, younger even than the young Rhode Island general. In such times many were being cast in roles seemingly beyond their experiences or capacities, and Washington had quickly judged Nathanael Greene to be "an object of confidence."
David McCullough, 1776, (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), 21.
It has been my experience in life that more often than not things that are deemed a "young man's cause" are often derided as foolish, naive, and not based upon sound judgment. With age comes experience & a better ability to make decisions the rationale goes. As a result, young people must "wait their turn" before getting heard, approached or in some cases considered. How many ideas of youth get flushed down the toilet as a result of this harsh treatment? Now to be fair, many ideas or causes of today's youth are roiled with rashness, stupidity and are clearly not well thought out. Despite this, though, we must remember how many times history has shown the idealistic nature of young minds and their impact on the shape of the world today.

The key then becomes learning how to become, like General Nathanael Greene, "objects of confidence" for the world around us. I struggled with this concept when working at the church, and became embittered by the lack of trust or dependency upon my ideas. My experience & capacity were deemed to be small and I was never really trusted to do or lead beyond the small realm of seemingly indestructible ministry. Looking back I can see where blame might be needed for those leaders with small vision above me, however, even more I can see my own failure to become that object of confidence. If I believed in myself as not being just an 'ordinary man' - I needed to make sure those around me (and especially above me) saw the same thing. My skills, character, and attributes needed to be honed, developed and then allowed to shine. Certainly this would not (and even today will not) guarantee success. Older people have a sense of entitlement that they have paid their dues, have their experiences and trust their 'sounder' judgment. So it is my duty to not get acrimonious but instead show an example in all I do and say that develops confidence.

The world is a broken place. Many systems are breaking down and confidence is waning in every sector. What is needed is for the capable to step forward and show their ability. It is then, despite the potential obstacles of longevity in experience or proven capacity that trust will be developed or at the very least initially bestowed. And when that happens, much like Nathanel Greene, we will become objects of confidence.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dilbert


I happen to think that Dilbert is one of the funniest comics of all time. Much like an episode of Seinfeld, it feels as if Scott Adams is able to illustrate scenarios straight from life. He has a blog on his website that is pretty darn good as well. If you feel as if you just need a laugh from your typical life - check out the site & blog. Well worth your time.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Germany Invades Belgium

On August 4th, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. Although not the technical start to WWI, this action would help plunge Europe into the Great War. Eventually all of the world's major powers would be involved and over 9 million people would be killed. Europe would never be the same again. The world would never be either. And even in the aftermath with the Treaty of Versailles & the rise of the League of Nations; we could not find peace and had to fight yet again.

"Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events." -Sir Winston Churchill-

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Forest

But Victor Frankl whispered in my ear all the same. He said to me I was a tree in a story about a forest, and that it was arrogant of me to believe any differently. And he told me the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree.

Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2009), 198.
I finished reading Miller's book this morning. I had bought it when I went to hear him speak at my church down in Arizona, but had never taken the time to actually read it. [Side-note: Its ironic how many books I have purchased but never gotten around to reading.] It was a quick read and pretty enjoyable. I have always thought Miller has the ability to tell a solid story, so a book about life in stories makes sense for him. My personal favorite from his remains Searching for God Knows What. Not sure why really, I just really loved it at the time I read it.

In regards to this book, I think the part that stuck out to me the most was his idea of the story of humanity being compared to that of a forest. A forest is made up of many trees - each being unique in and of themselves but still being part of the overall forest of trees. The story is about the forest. It has to be about the forest. No matter how tall, wide, green, or strong a particular tree might be - the forest as a whole is still more important. This speaks so strongly to my tendency to get caught up in my own world & life. I fall easily to the false belief that the forest (humanity) is not as critical to God or myself as the individual tree (myself). Its selfish & highly egotistical and often causes me hurt & frustration as I lament over God "letting me down" when things don't go my way. How much easier would life be if I didn't get so focused on my own journey and realized the larger story God was trying to communicate through everyone else? Its as if God is whispering the classic "don't miss the forest for the tree(s)" in that He desperately wants me to see the larger picture. My journey and the details of my life are very important to Him (what is man that thou art mindful of him) and yet the larger story is of far more importance. My story as an individual tree should be focused on contributing all that I have to offer to overall story of the forest. Its in doing that, that I will find joy & contentment in life.

Miller's book is certainly not a "life-changer" type work. However, I think it communicates some great ideas on story & life. If for only one illustration, the book was highly worth the read for me.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Grindstone

But with this change in condition comes inevitably adaptations to the change. What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision.


We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, (Public Domain Books, 2006), Kindle Locations (400-403) & (409-20).
The Victorian Era for the United Kingdom uniquely coincides with the Gilded Age of the United States. Both periods, for their respective countries, were marked by their increase in prosperity as well as technological advances making life "easier" in a lot of regards. Of course, rapid urbanization lead to pockets of high poverty and horrible slum conditions, but overall the period is well known for its descent into decadence for those at the "top" of society. It was during this era that H.G. Wells' masterpiece, The Time Machine, was written and published. Like many of the great 'classics' of English literature, The Time Machine combines solid writing, good story telling and intriguing social commentary into one nifty package. As a result, while reading it you not only are entertained but you get the real sense of life in that society.

I can recall seeing the 1960 film version of the The Time Machine when I was a kid, but until this week I had never read the novel. Needless to say, I was quite impressed with it and look forward to reading more H.G. Wells. Without going into the story line too deeply, the 'Time Traveler' is the protagonist who communicates the story throughout the book. He had built a time machine to travel through the fourth dimension which he explained was time. In traveling forward to the year 802,701 he comes in contact with an advanced age society of which most of the book discusses. In his first attempt at explaining one portion of that future society (the Eloi) he observes the laziness and lack of hard-work by the 'people'. It is from this observation he made the quotes as I posted above.

Hardship & freedom. Pain & necessity. I am blown away by Wells' keen observation of how critical these things are for humanity. In particular, the ideals of hardship & pain stand out as critical factors that are often overlooked. Much like the Victorian Era or Gilded Age, modern society has pushed the envelope of technology further and further while increasing the luxury and comforts for the high end social classes. Life has, in many ways, never been easier. And yet much like the Time Traveler's initial views of the Eloi, this should not immediately give us comfort. What is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? It is hardship. Pain. Self-restraint. Patience. Solid decision making. Doing things only out of necessity. The results of the 'active, strong, and subtle' pushing forward. And yet, it is hard to see these characteristics anymore. More and more they are thought of as archaic as modern conveniences and luxuries have made us loathe the difficult and embrace the easy. In many ways, the idea of effort has dissolved. This is especially seen in the younger generations which I am very much a part of.

So is all hope lost? That becomes the question. The picture we have seen and continue to see is certainly bleak. However, that being said, I still believe that anything is possible. Change will take time and the push-back on hard work will always exist. But human intelligence and vigour are needed as much today as they were in 1895. And if we believe in them still then we must fight forward with the very same weapons of hardship, pain, self-restraint, patience and solid decision making. The future is ours to make - what it will actually look like depends on the here and now.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Failure of Purpose

The first campaigning season was a great disappointment; the departure of Alcibiades left the venture in the hands of a leader who did not believe in its goals and who had no strategy of his own to achieve them. Plutarch described the situation as follows: "Nicias, though theoretically one of two colleagues, held sole power. He did not stop sitting about, sailing around, and thinking things over until the vigorous hope of his men had grown feeble and the astonishment and fear that the first sight of his forces had imposed on his enemy had faded away" (Nicias 14.4). Since he still dared not leave Sicily, Nicias and his men would now be compelled to face the main enemy at Syracuse without a clear plan of action.


Perhaps the oversight was more a failure of purpose than of judgment. Nicias, as we have seen, never wanted to attack Sicily, and forced to take part in the campaign, intended to pursue a minimal course that would avoid any serious engagement. He had probably refused to consider any step as serious as an attack on Syracuse until circumstances made it unavoidable and then found himself without the forces to carry it out.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 274, 279.
Nicias, 470-413 B.C., was a politician/general/leader for Athens during the Peloponnesian War. He was known for his character and virtue, and by all accounts seemed to be a guy that the Athenians liked and admired. He was a watered-down version of the great Pericles, mostly being like him in that he did not desire war and conflict with Sparta. In fact, it was under his leadership that lead to a brief moment of potential peace in 421 B.C. between Athens and Sparta. The Athenians responded well to his leadership and had consistently placed him a position to make decisions. Despite a lack in military success, Nicias' endearment to the people kept him in power.

Unfortunately for Athens, a crisis came about on the island of Sicily in 415 B.C. As a result it pitted Athenian interests against those of Syracuse (allied with Sparta). The Athenians voted for bold action and war in Sicily, of which Nicias was strongly against. Despite his repeated attempts to avoid the conflict, Athens jumped into it with Nicias as the key leader. A variety of mistakes would follow ending not only with the defeat of the Athenians, but also with the death of Nicias. Athens was ill-prepared for battle lacking man-power, strategy, and even the drive to win. Nicias committed folly after folly ending with a decision to refuse withdrawal simply to protect his name. The Sicily was an absolute disaster for the Athenians and seemingly the end of the war.

Failure of purpose. That was the crime of Nicias in the Sicily campaign. His heart simply was not in the conflict. He did not believe in its aims or even necessarily its goals. He was just going through the motions while attempting to maintain his position and prestige. He could not plan, develop strategy or even make solid decisions in the moment. Without heart, he could not pour himself into the mission. I think we see this very issue in a lot of people today. On a regular basis we see people failing or at the very least failing the organization they are a part of because of a failure of purpose. Having character, a solid skill-set and even leadership ability do not matter without heart. It does not make a person a bad person - it simply means they are not in the right position for themselves. You have to believe in what you are doing if you have any hope of succeeding. Even if some form of success is seen, chances are likely the person is simply a hollow version of what they could be if they truly believed.

So the question becomes - are you like Nicias? Are you going through the motions hanging onto some position or place of leadership simply because you don't have the guts to step down and pursue that which you desire to do? Are you struggling to succeed not because of inability but lack of purpose? The end result for Nicias was death by execution. What will be your end result if you stay mired in the same place you are in now?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Power of the Xymbouli

The xymboulos Pharax was obviously thinking ahead to consider the political ramifications of the battle. To destroy the aristocratic elite of Argos when most of the ordinary, democratic Argives had escaped would guarantee the continued alliance of Argos with the other democracies, but if the Argive elite returned home after the great defeat of the anti-Spartan policy, they could gain control of the city and bring it into a Spartan alliance, striking a death blow to the enemy coalition. The vengeful, inexperienced Agis, determined to recover his honor, could not foresee this in the heat of the battle, and the Spartans' decision to appoint advisers to him proved to be a well-considered idea.


Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 240-241.
The Spartan King Agis II was a poor leader and awful strategist. His poor decision making, inexperience in leading during battle, and overall lack in inspiring confidence had left him in a precarious position of leadership. In addition, Sparta continued to lose prestige within their sphere of influence while Athens seemingly kept gaining. The situation was getting dire and any further loss by Sparta or Agis would seemingly cripple the Spartans and their hegemony within the Peloponnesian Alliance. Some form of success and victory was absolutely imperative. In 418 BC, in response to a situation in the Tegea/Mantinea area, Agis was given one final shot at proving himself in the Battle of Mantinea against the Argive Alliance.

History has a way of repeating itself as people tend to not change their habits, behaviors and ways of thinking. To say that Sparta was headed for doom under the ineffective leadership of Agis is not inappropriate. What made the Battle of Mantinea unique, however, was the decision made by the ephors (leaders who shared power with the Spartan kings - based upon election) that Agis had to be placed under supervision by advisers known as the xymbouloi. These 10 men were responsible for helping Agis make better decisions - specifically in the realm of military leadership. It seems that this would have been humiliating for a king and a tremendous check upon his power. Whatever the king's emotions must have been in regards to the decision, the ephors' decision held firm. So when the Spartan-lead alliance headed off from Tegea to Mantinea, the king was surrounded.

To avoid too much detail, the battle ended in Spartan victory. Multiple times within the execution of the battle Agis was saved by the decision making of the xymbouloi - including both prior to the battle beginning and after the battle was finished. In a nutshell, Agis (and Sparta!) were saved by not only the brilliant fighting ability of the elite Spartan warriors, but by the solid decision making of the men giving advice to the king. Although the battle did not guarantee anything for the future, it was absolutely critical to Sparta and would have a significant impact upon the Athenians and power of democracy within ancient Greece. Advice saved the day.

It is in these moments of history that I truly see the wisdom of Solomon come alive. As he wrote in Proverbs 11:14, "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure." How easy it is to be like Agis and simply continue forward in my own stupidity and ways of thinking. Trapped in my own inabilities, I make the same mistakes repeatedly which then prevent my future success. Pride refuses to allow me to see those blind spots and I stumble forward into a wavering future. And yet the answer lies in front of me much like it did for Agis. Advisers. Do I have people in my life that are consistently checking my power and decision making? Am I humble enough to see the need for my own set of xymbouli - who could very well be the determining factor in how bright my future might be? They mattered to Agis and the Spartan empire as a whole - the question now becomes can I learn from that situation and apply it to my own life.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Leadership of Pericles

The death of Pericles deprived Athens of a leader with unique qualities. He was a military man and strategist of stature, but even more a brilliant politician of the rarest talents. He could decide on a policy and persuade the Athenians to adopt and remain committed to it, to restrain them from overly ambitious undertakings, and to encourage them when they lost confidence. The restored Pericles might have had sufficient power to hold the Athenians to a consistent policy, as no other Athenian could have. In his last recorded speech Pericles enumerated the characteristics necessary in a statesman: "To know what must be done and to be able to explain it; to love one's country and to be incorruptible" (2.60.5). No one had these traits in greater measure than Pericles himself, and if he made errors, he of all Athenians was most likely to put them right. His countrymen would miss him sorely.

Donald Kagan, The Peloponnesian War, (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 97-98.
The ancient world of Greece required its leaders to be both politicians and military strategists. If a man was to rise to the top he had to be able to effectively lead in both arenas. Decisions had to be constantly made and then explained in such a way that the people would either agree to them or at least give support based upon allegiance to their home. Pericles was an interesting leader that had a place of significant leadership in democratic Athens at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War with the Spartan Alliance. Being a moderate, he developed a strategy based upon deterrence and defense which at best would have prevented war. The lack of offensive strategy was a stark contrast to the Greek ideal of honor and courage which required him to explain it in such a way that would receive support. Although his death would curtail him from effectively making a long term impact upon the war, his ideals and principles remain a shining example of leadership today.

In particular, I am smitten with the ideas Pericles enumerated in his final recorded speech. Simply knowing what must be done in a given situation or leadership moment distinguishes those with even a clue of how to lead. However, it is the next crucial step that helps illuminate those who want to lead from those who have the actual ability. As Pericles stated it, you have to be able to explain the why behind a leadership decision. It is not enough to simply recognize and choose the right decision - those who follow want to know why...especially in light of a potentially polemic issue. The explanation cannot be just a simply restating of the decision with an emphasis on it being right. Instead, it must help the follower understand, grasp its vision, and find a way to support it. Do not tell me you made a decision and I have to live with it. Help explain why it has to be this way and how it benefits me to be on board with it.

As if this is not enough, Pericles goes on to explain that loyalty and integrity are also critical. Loyalty is often an abused virtue by leaders. Whether it is mocking patriotism by extolling the need for American flag lapels or incessant demand that followers blindly accept that being dished out to them, loyalty is easily misunderstood. At the end of the day, I don't care about what you say in terms of loyalty, I want to see you bleed for that which you claim to lead. Do you so firmly believe in that which you lead that you consistently do what's best for it and not yourself??? Integrity, or being incorruptible as Pericles puts it, might be the hardest of all. How firm are you on morality? Can you be bought, swayed or simply mislead? What would it take for you to compromise on "right"? Or even better - how do your followers know you are not corruptible?

The reality is we lack leaders with the ideals that Pericles put forth. We desperately want them and often lionize those who embody them. But simply recognizing that which is critical to effective leadership helps us as we move forward in the search of those who can bring us to where we need to be.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

IN HOC SIGNO VINCES

The Vision of the Cross - assistants of Raphael


Though it would only become apparent later, the battle of Milvian Bridge was a major turning point in history. By wielding the cross and sword, Constantine had done more than defeat a rival - he had fused the church and the state together. It would be both a blessing and a curse to both institutions, and neither the Christian church nor the Roman Empire would ever be the same again.

Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 14.
What really happened the night Constantine prayed before his battle with Maxentius? What words did he say? What god did he pray to? Did the God of Christianity truly reveal Himself in the sign of a cross? Did Jesus actually encourage him to proceed behind the cross as a means of protection and, dare I say, guidance? Did God want Constantine in charge and did God really want church & state together? These are questions that swirl in my head as I think about that fateful event in history that would catapult Constantine to leader of the Eastern Roman Empire and, as Lars Brownworth pointed out, fuse the church and state together. The reality, as best as I can tell, is that Constantine simply saw the advantages of Christianity against paganism for the growth of his power and empire. Whether or not he ever truly understood the faith or believed in the death, burial & resurrection of Jesus is hard to tell or prove. But he understood the power and prestige he stood to gain and throughout the rest of his life he would exploit the church & state relationship.


Uniquely, I think we see that continued today within the United States. Much like the emperor of antiquity, leaders in the United States see the sign of the cross as a means to "conquer" the political, social and spiritual realms of power. The cross/church have become a base of power & foundation to build upon in order to accomplish the goals of the individual. Republicans, Democrats, and a variety of groups such as Focus on the Family truly believe in the power and authority they can receive through the use of the cross. Political leaders, megachurch pastors, social leaders, and even media powers use the cross as a method to gain access or publicity to their cause. I wonder if the idea of divine leadership has gotten lost, though, in the search for human authority. Conquering continues - but does so at the loss of anything resembling that of Jesus. Boasting of church allegiance, sacrificial giving, and good morality become tossed around like useless trivia. When one accomplishes their goal - an "honorary" call out to God is given as if divine favor truly rested upon their accomplishment. But what does it all mean?


In the end, it seems as if our boasts of in hoc signo vinces are much like Constantine's. We may or may not conquer our goals...but our focus, much like his, is simply upon our own glorification.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Great Book!

Education is one of the most valuable aspects of American society. It plays a critical role in the foundation of our country. There are not many people who would argue against the need and value of solid education. Despite this, though, there are many problems plaguing the education system with a variety of beliefs on how to fix them. Diane Ravitch has written a masterpiece on the problems and issues of today's American education system. She writes like a good historian and explores issues with a simple candor & straight-forward approach. For anyone interested in exploring the issues of the American school system as it stands today, I highly recommend getting your hands on this book. It was a very enjoyable read & one that has made its mark on my thinking & philosophy.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What is accountability?

One problem with test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students' academic performance. NCLB neglected to acknowledge that students share in the responsibility for their academic peformance and that they are not merely passive recipients of their teachers' influence. Nowhere in the federal accountability scheme are there measures or indicators of students' diligence, effort, and motivation. Do they attend school regularly? Do they do their homework? Do they pay attention in class? Are they motivated to succeed? These factors affect their school performance as much as or more than their teachers' skill.

Similarly, the authors of the law forgot that parents are primarily responsible for the children's behavior and attitudes. It is families that do or do not ensure that their children attend school regularly, that they are in good health, that they do their homework, and that they are encouraged to read and learn. But in the eyes of the law, the responsibility of the family disappears. Something is wrong with that. Something is fundamentally wrong with an accountability system that disregards the many factors that influence students' performance on an annual test - including the students' own efforts - except for what teachers do in the classroom for forty-five minutes or an hour a day.
Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 162-163.

Only lazy people argue against accountability. Accountability is the single most important factor in a person's life. It is what makes a person work hard, do their best, accept responsibility, learn from mistakes, grow in knowledge/ability, and become a better overall person. It can be painful and at times the exact opposite of fun. However, in the right framework and with the right prodding, it can be the difference between mediocrity and excellence. All of that being said, accountability must be in place to help people and systems improve. The goal of it should not be for punishment but for profit. Excellence is not achieved by tearing people or systems to shreds over mistakes, errors or lack of top level talent.

The issue in education is that teachers are getting held to high standards based upon faulty logic and tests. The mistake the general public falls for is that high test scores equate to solid education. Of course the mistake teachers make is that accountability is evil and should be left outside the school. Both sides take stances on either side of the fence which encourages mistrust and a major lack of cooperation. As a result, education gets stalled and society as a whole does not benefit. In addition, students are left out of the picture as talking heads argue back and forth about who is responsible for the broken system. The primary goal of education must be the preparation of younger generations for leadership and contribution to society. What has to happen is the development of a system of accountability to ensure that primary goal.

So how do we get back to focusing on the right goal? The first step is developing the right way to hold teachers accountable. Stop worrying about test scores and what looks good "on paper". Both of those can have meaning, but they fail to tell us whether or not our students are actually getting well educated and developed as young men and women. What we need is solid evaluations of teachers with the goal of pushing educators towards maximizing their ability to impact students in their subject knowledge, responsibility level, and critical thinking. Next, we need to figure out a way to get parents back involved in the education field. I strongly believe that parents are the most important ingredient to academic success. Teachers, schools, and communities must push strongly for parent involvement in the classroom. If parents are not involved, they will be hard pressed to actually hold their own children responsible. Finally, students need to be held accountable for themselves. Educators need to be able to effectively challenge students for their lack of initiative, effort and focus. Students need to learn that taking responsibility for themselves and their learning process is the single most important lesson in academics.

It is only when all three of these groups in the academic process are held to a higher standard that education will start to thrive. As of right now, society is content with looking at test scores and punishing teachers and schools as the key to academic improvement. As a result, we continue to flounder about with no real achievement or goals being grasped.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Lure of the Market

Market reforms have a certain appeal to some of those who are accustomed to "seeing like a state." There is something comforting about the belief that the invisible hand of the market, as Adam Smith called it, will bring improvements through some unknown force. In education, this belief in market forces lets us ordinary mortals off the hook, especially those who have not figured out how to improve low-performing schools or to break through the lassitude of unmotivated teens. Instead of dealing with rancorous problems like how to teach reading or how to improve testing, one can redesign the management and structure of the school system and concentrate on incentives and sanctions. One need not know anything about children or education. The lure of the market is the idea that freedom from government regulation is a solution all by itself. This is very appealing, especially when so many seemingly well-planned school reforms have failed to deliever on their promise.

The new corporate reformers betray their weak comprehension of education by drawing false analogies between education and business. They think they can fix education by applying the principles of business, organization, management, law, and marketing and by developing a good data-collection system that provides the information necessary to incentivize the workforce - principals, teachers, and students - with appropriate rewards and sanctions.
Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 11.
Very, very interesting argument regarding using market-based reforms and ideas to solve the woes of education. Can ideas aimed at cut-throat, bottom-line, make a dollar goals truly help educate young men and women into the adults we desire them to be? Education is more than simply getting kids to pass tests. It is about developing their thought process, helping them socially connect with a variety of peers, challenging their personal beliefs, developing their work ethic, building character, and learning about subject matter that is crucial to their overall well-being as citizens. Market based thought eliminates this, though, and makes test scores the only authority on success within the classroom. As a teacher in that system I become far more focused on test results than student care. In the business world, the customer and their needs does not matter. What matters is that I make money - generally speaking by any means necessary. Pushing that type of thought process into education might produce higher test scores but cuts short on our development of tomorrow's generation(s).

In addition, how do incentives and merit based pay help make me a better educator? I guess the answer to that question is tied into your stance on what education should be doing. If I am only trying to get a test score, tying my pay up into the level of those scores seems like a great idea. I will push and push and find whatever means necessary to get the test results to boost my salary. However, if my goal is to produce more well-rounded citizens...I quickly lose sight of that goal when it becomes obvious that I am not being measured on it. There is some validity to encouraging teachers through incentives - however, it must be tied up into how well a teacher is producing the type of student and young adult we want to build the future of America upon. So what is your view of what success in a classroom is? What type of student do you want to see? And do you believe the cut-throat mentality of the corporate world will somehow, someway produce those results?

Do oil companies care about ordinary citizens?

Rational Thinking

What should we think of someone who never admits error, never entertains doubt but adheres unflinchingly to the same ideas all his life, regardless of new evidence? Doubt and skepticism are signs of rationality. When we are too certain of our opinions, we run the risk of ignoring any evidence that conflicts with our views. It is doubt that shows we are still thinking, still willing to reexamine hardened beliefs when confronted with new facts and new evidence.
Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 2.

It is fun (and at times painful!) to look back at my life over the past 10 years or so and see how much I have changed, adapted, and grown. My beliefs, ideas, politics, and overall outlook have all been subject to change and development. I have read and examined articles and books which have had tremendous impact upon my development. In addition, I have been fortunate to have spent time with some great thinkers who have challenged me to continue to claw forward in examination of my idealogies. Ironically, I have also been encouraged to think and develop by those I have found to be incredibly close-minded and irrationally tied down to certain beliefs, stereotypes and ways of thinking.

Diane Ravitch starts her latest book off with a great statement on doubt, skepticism and rationality. I think it is a great reminder that no matter how much I learn there is always room for new ideas and potential changes to my beliefs. As a human, I am constantly limited by my own experiences, bias, and pre-determined worldview. My limitations constantly seduce me into small-minded thinking and irrationality. I will cling to beliefs and ideas simply because I cannot think outside of my own personal box. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs formed in that box have a very minute chance of being successful or valuable to myself or my community. However, when pushed and prodded to move beyond - I can gain such valuable insight. The goal then, as Ravitch explained, is to continue to doubt, examine, and be skeptical while remaining open-minded. New facts, evidence and/or opinions should impact my thinking. I should be different tomorrow in other words. Is that a sign of a flip-flopping person? No. That is rationality at its best.

The goal now becomes to continue to think, learn, and grow. May the person I become tomorrow not be worried about being "right" so much as being a willing participant in the game of growth and knowledge.

56

If there is life on Earth but none yet observed on any of the other planets in our solar system, can we make a guess as to the probability that alien life is thriving somewhere out there in the cosmos? Who could possibly say? We only know that there is life on Earth. And when it comes to baseball and to hitting streaks, there is at least one thing that we can say for sure: Through the end of the 2010 season 17,290 players were known to have appeared in the major leagues. Only one of them had ever hit in 56 straight games.
Kostya Kennedy, 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, (New York: Time Home Entertainment Inc, 2011), 343.

I just finished reading Kostya Kennedy's new book on Joe DiMaggio and his 56 game hitting streak. It was a great & highly entertaining read on one of the more remarkable streaks/stats in baseball history. He did a wonderful job at detailing the streak, Joe DiMaggio and the culture of 1941. One of the book's strengths is simply moving along the story without ever getting bogged down into overwhelming details. On top of that, Kennedy does a great job at looking at side stories such as Pete Rose, the luck of a hitting streak and the odds of a hitting streak such as DiMaggio's even happening. Along the way I picked up some interesting facts and enjoyed learning more about the streak overall. I give a high recommendation to the book - especially for baseball fans.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cut Defense?

"The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt."
-Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-

In fact, the U.S. spends about as much on its military as the rAlign Centerest of the world combined.

While the U.S.'s military spending has jumped from $1,500 per capita in 1998 to $2,700 in 2008, its NATO allies have been spending $500 per person over the same span. As long as the U.S. is overspending on its defense, it lets its allies skimp on theirs and instead pour the savings into infrastructure, education and health care. So even as U.S. taxpayers fret about their health care costs, their tax dollars are paying for a military that is subsidizing the health care of their European allies.

Thompson, Mark. "How To Save A Trillion Dollars." Time 25 April 2011: 24-29. Print.

Friday, April 15, 2011

My Own Reality

I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself, not for others - what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Kindle Location 535-37.

What does it mean to find yourself? Is is possible to do something and in the act of doing that particular task or job find yourself? In the same vein, is it possible to get so lost within a task or job that you lose track of who you even are? Does a job provide an opportunity for others to see who you are or does a job simply allow you to test yourself to see what's within you? I struggled nearly every single day I worked at the church. I was so frustrated, lost, confused, hurt, and often angry at my job there. I was bitter to my wife. I struggled to invest in my own kids. I felt parts of my own life ebbing away as if the days, weeks, months and years were being consumed by a beast I had no idea how to contain or control. Often times I wondered why I kept toiling at something that no matter how hard I tried never seemed to fit. Questions I asked never seemed to be answered. Those above me would always point out that I had issues that needed to be sorted out but that the job itself was fine. Those I encountered assumed the job was great for me and that it fit so well for my skills, personality, and experiences. I was lost amongst it all, not knowing what to do, who to turn to, or what the hell was wrong with me. Looking back I can see clearly now that I was searching for something that couldn't be found there. A job, in a myriad of ways, can never truly give identity or purpose. However, within a job one can experience the journey towards finding out who they are and what their reality is. The job in and of itself is not that critical. However, the job can either assist in the process of discovery or simply be a stumbling block towards recovery of oneself. Working for the church was never meant to be for me. Others could see the "mere show" and assume they knew what was best - but only I could tell what was going on. I was even accused of using the church to further myself as if somehow I wasn't providing enough return for the labor I put forth. Man that pissed me off. But in the end, who cares. What matters is that I ended up finally stumbling in a new direction of teaching & education. I have yet to find a job and reality in this economy doesn't speak too kindly to my prospects. But in the short time I have worked at a school I have found a vocation that has opened the floodgates of thoughts, feelings, and ideas welled up within me. Reality is at the end of the tunnel, and for a change, my job allows me to see it. I am finding myself on a daily basis now. Are there difficult parts to my job? Certainly. But it has provided me the opportunity to explore and experience life. I am finding a new me, and I really love it. The mere show others might see probably gives them an opinion or two on who I am. But now I don't care anymore. No one can tell, explain, or experience the depth of refreshment I have found in teaching. Reality is finally here and now I am not afraid of it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spectral Illumination

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Kindle Location 60-63.

The idea of a seamen & ability to tell yarns is humorous enough, but in the case of Marlow we see a complex story of complexity and depth that speaks much to the condition of the human soul as well as the period of European expansion in Africa. As Marlow recounts his tale, we see a story filled with descriptions that have meaning far beyond that which he simply states. The joy of reading Conrad's book is understanding the depth of what he is trying to communicate. The above quote really showcases the book as a whole. Meaning is more than that which is found when a nut is cracked open - rather that which is outside of the entire nut. In other words, the entire picture of situation, person or scenario must be understood, studied and appreciated in order for it to be grasped. It is far too easy to just to conclusions and assumptions based upon what we can see and immediately understand. Much like when we crack open a peanut shell expecting to find a peanut, we quickly formulate ideas about people or situations based upon what we find to logically fit. Those false assumptions end up tainting our viewpoints, restricting us from seeing real truth. How much do we miss out by failing to see that which is only lit by the "spectral illumination of the moonshine" as Conrad states through Marlow? The story always contains more depth then meets the eye. Our goal as people ought to be the examination and study of people, situations and scenarios that yield the greatest amount of understanding and appreciation. It is only then that we can truly hope to limit the damaging destruction of our own willful ignorance and bias.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Terror

As the rubber terror spread throughout the rain forest, it branded people with memories that remained raw for the rest of their lives. A Catholic priest who recorded oral histories half a century later quotes a man, Tswambe, speaking of a particularly hated state official named Leon Fievez, who terrorized a district along the river three hundred miles north of Stanley Pool: All the blacks saw this man as the Devil of the Equator...From all the bodies killed in the field, you had to cut off the hands. He wanted to see the number of hands cut off by each soldier, who had to bring them in baskets...A village which refused to provide rubber would be completely swept clean. As a young man, I saw [Fievez's] soldier Molili, then guarding the village of Boyeka, take a big net, put ten arrested natives in it, attach big stones to the net, and make it tumble into the river...Rubber caused these torments; that's why we no longer want to hear its name spoken. Soldiers made young men kill or rape their own mothers and sisters. A Force Publique officer who passed through Fievez's post in 1894 quotes Fievez himself describing what he did when the surrounding villages failed to supply his troops with the fish and manioc he had demanded: "I made war against them. One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies at the station ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people...but that allowed five hundred others to live."

Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, (New York: Mariner Books, 1999), Kindle Location 2977-89.
Sick. Twisted. Morbid. Utter darkness. The absolute depraved condition of men is incredibly difficult to acknowledge and learn about. Just how far we as people are willing to go in our quest for wealth & power is beyond sickening.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Message, Audience & Self-interest

Morel knew exactly how to fit his message to his audience. He reminded British businessmen that Leopold's monopolistic system, copied by France, had shut them out of much Congo trade. To members of the clergy he talked of Christian responsibility and quoted the grim reports from missionaries. And for all Britons, and their representatives in Parliament, he evoked the widespread though unspoken belief that England had a particular responsibility to make decency prevail in the universe. Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, (New York: Mariner Books, 1999), Kindle Location 3745-48.

Does your message fit your audience? That is perhaps the most critical aspect of marketing. If your message does not fit the audience - you will have no one to receive it. One of the "heroes" in the fight against the Congo Free State was E.D. Morel. His crusade against the atrocities being committed there made a significant impact. His ability to reach completely different groups with the same idea was instrumental in the fight to end the crimes being committed under Leopold's regime. He understood the basic concept that people will only care about something and be moved to make a difference if they understand how an issue personally impacts them. In a nutshell, people are inherently self-interested and that self-interest needs to be engaged in order for people to act. Fitting your audience then becomes an issue of whether or not you are connecting with the self-interest within the particular group(s) of people you are trying to reach. British businessmen in 1900 were not necessarily interested in helping native Africans getting slaughtered by brutal Europeans. However, they were interested in getting a piece of the economic pie that up to that point they had been getting cut out of. Morel got them on board by hitting that nerve. So whatever it is you are trying to "sell" to people - you must tap into that nerve center that motivates based upon selfish desire. This seems to be especially true in light of philanthropy endeavors. People will give of their resources (time, money, energy, etc) if they see a personal benefit. As their selfish interests are met - they will continue to move in any sort of direction one would choose to lead them in. Selfishness is the key to philanthropy? At first it seems paradoxical to say and yet the more I look at it the more I see it to be true. People are greedy & selfish by nature. Even when we feel like we are doing something for the greater good - we often are doing so under some form of personal motivation (the need to be known, recognized, loved, appreciated...). Every move we make, we do so in light of how others might respond. Its sick, ugly and twisted. Marketing has capitalized upon it & successful leaders have used it for years. A message will only reach humanity IF it taps into it. So the question becomes - can we use this tool of our own depravity for any consistent good? In other words, can our selfishness consistently be put to good use & how?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Fluidity Of Boundaries

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Pablo Picasso
Cubism was new only for Europeans, for it was was partly inspired by specific pieces of African art, some of them from the Pende and Songye peoples, who live in the basin of the Kasai River, one of the Congo's major tributaries. It is easy to see the distinctive brilliance that so entranced Picasso and his colleagues at their first encounter with this art at an exhibit in Paris in 1907. In these central African sculptures some body parts are exaggerated, some shrunken; eyes project, cheeks sink, mouths disappear, torsos become elongated; eye sockets expand to cover almost the entire face; the human face and figure are broken apart and formed again in new ways and proportions that had previously lain beyond the sight of traditional European realism. The art sprang from cultures that had, among other things, a looser sense than Islam or Christianity of the boundaries between our world and the next, as well as those between the world of humans and the world of beasts...Perhaps it was the fluidity of these boundaries that granted central Africa's artists a freedom those in Europe had not yet discovered.
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, (New York: Mariner Books, 1999), Kindle Location 1313-26.
I have to admit that I have not always had a full enough appreciation of art and art history. As a result, I have often been ignorant of the full value art has at expressing a time period's culture, customs, beliefs, and attitudes. So when I come across information that sheds light upon my ignorance, I am often overcome with the tremendous value & insight it provides me with. Currently, I am reading a book about King Leopold II and his tremendous brutality in the age of imperialism on Central Africa. It is a case in history that has unfortunately not had enough light shed upon it. The author (Adam Hochschild) does a tremendous job at providing a broad range of information to help the reader understand the time period as well as the facts of the story. One point he makes is the influence of African art on the artists of Europe of this time - including that of Pablo Picasso.

What stuck out to me was Hochschild's point of the fluidity of the boundaries between the different worlds for Africans at that time in history. I was struck at how amazing it must have been to not see such distinct lines between what we might call "reality" and that of the spiritual world (as well as that of humans and of animals!). Europeans were so compressed into realism that the potential to shed oneself of its shackles must have been so liberating to artists and free-thinkers of that time period. The question it begged to me was: How often do we fail to see the bigger picture because of the cultural restraints we place upon ourselves? We become so accustomed to seeing things and doing things based upon what we know, see and understand that we willingly stunt our creativity and possibility. As realism in art gave way to the liberating movement of cubism - we too have the potential to taste more liberating freedom if we allow ourselves to move beyond our own restrictions.

In particular, the spiritual world should be viewed in light of being intimately connected to that which we call reality. The amazing aspect of that is that a continent westerners shamelessly called "dark" was in reality a light to the concept of freedom of thought and expression. Instead of exploiting Africa - Westerners would have done the world a lot better favor by learning from Africa.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Life Change By Reading

I recently started a book on the brutal massacre of millions of Africans from the area known as the "Congo Free State" under the leadership of King Leopold the II from Belgium. It is something I sadly know little about. My hope is to not only learn more about it but also like all historical learning to apply its learning to my own personal life. In other words, I hope my life is changed by what I read.

Life change by reading. I was having a text conversation with an old friend the other day and he was teasing me about my constant reading of history books. I am guilty as charged as the majority of books I read are generally historical & non-fiction in make-up. Why? There are a few reasons. One, I love to learn about history. I think true history is fare more exciting and interesting than fiction. It actually happened! Two, I think there is much to be learned from history. What we fail to grasp, learn, and improve upon sets up tragic potential for as of yet untold future. And finally, I read history books because they give me the facts, stories, and colorful additions to my ability to teach students. History is so much more than numbers & names. It is the very foundation human civilization is built upon - both good & bad. My goal is to help students understand that and have fun while learning.

So that is why I read what I read. Of course, everyone is different and everyone has their own set of likes, ideas, and tastes. With that in mind - my challenge would be for everyone to simply read more. Find out what interests you and spurs you on to better thinking, more creativity, and passion and then read, read, read.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Personal Connection

Was Tocqueville right that religion contributes to American democracy? The evidence suggests that with one important exception he was. Religious Americans are generally better neighbors and more active citizens, though they are less staunch supporters of civil liberties than secular Americans. Morever, religious Americans are more satisfied with their lives. As we have seen, however, theology and piety have very little to do with this religious edge in neighborliness and happiness. Instead it is religion's network of morally freighted personal connections, coupled with an inclination toward altruism, that explains both the good neighborliness and the life satisfaction of religious Americans.
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Unites Us and Divides Us, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 492.
Religious social networking. According to the research, religious Americans are more apt to be good neighbors and civic-minded simply because of the social networks provided by their particular religious institution. In other words, a church can have good preaching, good music, and a dynamic building - but without relationships it will mean squat. Without providing a forum and opportunity for true networking (none of that Sunday bullshit of "How you doing" & "I'm doing fine") - people will not change because of church. As Putnam and Campbell say it, "devout people who sit alone in the pews are not much more neighborly than people who don't go to church at all. The real impact of religiosity on niceness or good neighborliness, it seems, comes through chatting with friends after service or joining a Bible study group, not from listening to the sermon or fervently believing in God." People MUST connect with people to make religious participation meaningful. A perfect call for community.

It is amazing to me to see a well researched and articulated book point out the obvious and yet for the church to still not get it. How is it that we see book after book written about the need for community and then even have researched data to back it up - and yet it can still feel so hollow and empty when we go to church? We see the show, we feel the entertainment, and we can tell time and money have been invested...and yet none of it matters or penetrates. Even when we remark on the "timeliness of such a great sermon" - it usually has exited our thoughts by the time we hear that 6 am alarm the next morning. In many ways, that after church lunch with our group of church friends is more critical to developing our lives than the service we just got out of.

So should we ditch church all together? I don't think that is the answer or even a logical step. The church service still has meaning and purpose. However, the reality is that what churches need to do more of is develop ways for people to move beyond attendance and into meaningful relationships. The primary source of all time, creativity, energy, money, and effort needs to be relationship development. Because at the end of the day - that will truly transform more lives than a service. People become better people as a result of truly doing life with other people. Don't tell me you have Bible studies, small groups, or midweek programming. Give me something every single time I come in contact with your church that shows me relationship. Then, and truly one then, will church showcase the intimacy, relationship, and love that Jesus Christ desires with us.

After all, in heaven I would expect Jesus to give me a hug, share a story, or simply laugh with me NOT show me His ability to shock & awe my senses.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Trend Follower

However, we can find encouragement in the fact that other evangelicals - and members of other religious traditions too - have adapted to ethno-racial diversity. Like the adaptation to changing gender roles described in the previous chapter, most religious Americans have conformed to the broader societal norms endorsing racial tolerance. To "adapt" and "conform" are passive verbs, chosen because, in general, religion has not served a prophetic role and promoted greater racial equality. Religious Americans are following the trend, not setting it.
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 315.
Religious institutions are followers not leaders in American culture. That is a heavy charge to make against groups that the majority of which would say they want to be changers of culture. How do you change culture when you are constantly adapting to fit into it? Taking a look at how American religious institutions have adapted to the changing gender roles, socio-economic relationships, and racial tolerance is eye-opening. Not because they have done so poorly at it, but because they have adapted and conformed in much the same way as the rest of American culture has. So the question is are American churches followers of God or simply cultural clubs?

Here are some things I think. The first is that I believe churches have started hiring female pastors simply because American cultural views of women workers has changed. With the rise of female power, authority and education in culture it became permissible for churches to employ them. Although I am happy to see female pastors, part of me wants to know why the church for so long did not have them but now the "rules" have changed. In other words is the church admitting to failure to recognize female leadership in the past or do we truly believe that in the last 30 years females have all of a sudden become acceptable spiritual leaders?

The second is in giving. I think the American church does a pretty decent job at this. Could it be better? Certainly - but that should not discount the good being done now. But the issue I have is the growing socio-economic divide that we are facing in America and has come to rear its ugly head within the church. Although the church does give money to those in need - it rarely seems to confront the issue that people with money struggle to relate to and form relationships with those without. Giving cash to a person in need is beneficial - befriending them and doing life with them is a whole, bigger step. What is the church doing to promote those types of relationships? Or has the church become okay with the idea of giving money but never actually seeing those who receive it?

Third and final is with racial tolerance. I think this is the hardest one because I think most Americans (myself included) do not do well with this. I believe the church has gotten more racially tolerant and for the most part people seem to be breaking down their out-right, blatant racist viewpoints. However, like in giving - its one thing to say I don't view other ethnicities as lower than my own, it is a whole, bigger issue to say I am seeking relationships and friendships outside of my own comfortable race bubble. Most churches remain homogeneous collections of people. That seems to be a far cry from the "every tongue, tribe & nation" worshipping model. The reality is that what little progress has been made in the church once again mirrors the slow growth model of American culture.

The church should have the desire and ability to set trends not follow them. Until it figures out how to do that, though, it will remain an American cultural club designed to make its members feel included and entertained while failing to bring the impact the surrounding society desperately needs.