Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking Back at 2012 and Forward to 2013

Looking Back at 2012 and Forward to 2013
On December 31st of each year, most all of us look back at the events of the past year and take inventory of our lives.  We remember our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows, and resolve to do things differently in the New Year.  So I’d like to share with you something to consider as you make your New Year’s resolutions.

In September 1997, I heard of the passing of a wonderful physician who helped change the world for the better.  Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph.D. (March 26th 1905—September 2nd 1997) was an Austrian Psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.  After he was liberated, he wrote one of the most life changing books I’ve ever read: Man’s Search for Meaning (pub. 1946).  In fact, the Library of Congress listed this book as one of the ten most influential books in the U.S.  By the time of Dr. Frankl's passing, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

In the book, Dr. Frankl wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz and the lessons he learned.  The one take away I got from the book was this: It doesn’t matter what You ask of Life, but what Life asks of You that really matters! 
You may ask that Life bring you Happiness and Prosperity in the New Year, but what Life may ask of you could be the exact opposite.  I know this is sobering to think about, but consider this: are happiness and prosperity really in your control?  Not really!  The only things really in your control are your own thoughts, attitudes, and choices in life.

You can choose to think positively rather than negatively; you can choose to love rather than hate; you can choose to forgive rather than hold a grudge; you can choose to do good rather than do evil; you can choose to be merciful rather than be vindictive; you can choose to have faith rather than give into fear; you can choose to have hope rather than give into despair; and you can choose to accept whatever life asks of you with humility and grace. 

May God Bless You in the New Year,
Bryan

Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph.D. (1905-1997)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Frankl




Saturday, December 29, 2012

New Years Resolutions

I wanted to share this excellent article by Shawn Parr publised on FastCompany December 27, 2012.  It's well worth your time to read.  Parr writes, "Each of us has the ability to choose how we show up to life every day: sleeves rolled up or hands out. Here's how to have a happier and more productive New Year--at home as well as at work."
Happy New Year,
Bryan

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Les Misérables


Les Misérables

File:Les-miserables-movie-poster1.jpgOn Christmas day, my family and I went to see Les Misérables.  It’s a musical film adaptation of the famous London Play based on the book by Victor Hugo first published in France in 1862.  The film stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Samantha Barks as Eponine, Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette, and Daniel Huttlestone as the young street urchin Gavroche (these kids are just too cute!).
(URL: www.lesmiserablesfilm.com). 

The film is fantastic!  All the actors sing their parts.  I was especially impressed with Amanda Seyfried’s saprano performance (her role in Moma Mia didn't do her voice justice).  The visuals are stunning and very realistic, and the acting and singing performances are Academy Award winning material.  
I'm what professional marketers call "a late adopter"; in other words, "I'm a Johnny come lately!"  Just a few years ago, I rented the 1998 dramatic movie starring Liam Neeson (one of my favorite actors) as Jean Valjean, Geoffrey Rush as Javert, Uma Thurman as Fantine, and Claire Danes as Cosette.   I was so inspired by the story that I immeadiately bought both the Kindle and Audible versions of the book and devoured them. (The book itself is very long—over 1000 pages—so I had to cheat with the audio version in order to get through it in a reasonable amount of time.)
What I love about the the story is that it epitomizes what I like to write about: the socio-economic struggles mankind faces in life.  Its themes include: social injustice, good vs. evil, virtue vs. vice, love vs. hate, justice vs. mercy, hope vs. dispair, faith, repentance, forgiveness, and atonement. 

The character Jean Valjean epitomizes how one man can help change the world for the better by first changing himself for the better.  The story epitomizes how Mercy always triumphs over Justice, how Hope always triumps over Dispair, and how Love always triumphs over Hate.  I don’t want to spoil the show for you, so do yourself a favor and go see the movie.

Monday, December 24, 2012

HOW CAN YOU BECOME A BETTER PERSON?


HOW CAN YOU BECOME A BETTER PERSON?

In my last two blog postings, I presented a rational argument that if you want to help change the world for the better, you have to begin by changing yourself for the better (which is easier said than done).  Throughout our history, mankind has struggled to become better with limited success.  Some have succeeded to varying degrees, but as we all know, most have not.

So how can we become better people?  How can we become more kind to others?  How can we live more honestly, decently, ethically, and morally?  How can we change ourselves for the better?  These are the sixty-four thousand dollar questions mankind has been asking for generations?  And there are no simple answers.  If it were so easy to become better people, we would be living in a utopia by now.

So rather than first asking how can we become better people, let’s first ask how did we get into this condition in the first place?  How did our world become so unfair and unkind? 

First of all, Judeo-Christian teachings say that God is the Supreme Being who created everything in the universe, and according to His divine will and providence, keeps them in existence.  God is infinitely perfect and the source of all life, knowledge and truth.  God is all-holy, almighty, all-eternal, all-good, all-knowing, all-present, all-wise, all-loving, all-just, and all-merciful (just to name a few). 

Surprisingly, followers of Judeo-Christian teachings believe that just by natural reason we can come to know God.  All you have to do is consider the universe we live in….  All the created realities from the stars in the night sky, our sun and moon, the earth we live on, the wonder of nature, all the creatures that inhabit or world (from the smallest to the greatest), or our own human bodies give evidence of God’s existence.  Consider the phenomena found in nature and the physical, mathematical, and life sciences that study them and try to explain them with varying degrees of success.  Yes mankind has learned a lot over the ages, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean compared with what we still don’t know.  But actually there’s a much simpler way to know God: just look deep within yourself—into the recesses of your mind—and you’ll know there IS a God! 

In the beginning, men and women perfectly reflected God’s own perfect holiness, goodness, wisdom, knowledge, power, and love.  They were free from suffering and death and were given the freedom to choose or free will.  By obeying God, they could remain in this wonderful state of perfection; but by disobeying God, they’d lose the wonderful gifts He gave them. 

Our God-given ability to freely choose or free will means that God will not force us to love him or to obey him, nor will God force us to act honestly, decently, ethically, and morally in our dealings with other people, but ultimately God will hold us all accountable for the way we lived our lives and how we treated other people.

Unfortunately, men and women fell from this original state of perfection through pride, selfishness, and disobedience to God.  They lost these wonderful gifts God gave them, and this is what brought suffering and death into the world. 

Since the fall of man and woman, all generations that followed have failed to live up to God’s moral and ethical laws; this is what followers of Judeo-Christian teachings call original sin and it disrupted man’s intimate, loving relationship with God our creator.

As a result of this original sin every man and woman was born into a fallen state of separation and alienation from God and became subject to suffering, death, ignorance, and a strong inclination to sin and to disobey God.  Men and women lost God’s wonderful gifts of holiness, justice, grace, great knowledge, control of their passions, and freedom from suffering and death. 

History has clearly shown that we cannot save ourselves or reverse the effects of this curse of original sin—only God can!  Every generation that has come and gone has tried and failed miserably.  Some would argue that the world is slowly getting better and we’re more advanced than previous generations.  Our technology and scientific understanding have grown.  They could argue that we’re no longer stuck in the dark ages and there’s relative peace in most of the developed world.  But before long, someone or something will change all that: murder, mayhem, misunderstandings, conflict, war, famine, natural disasters, sickness, disease, etcetera, etcetera….  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  And deep down inside each of us we know that life is basically unfair and unkind?    

Fortunately, God didn’t give up on us!  He immediately began to save the human race from our fallen condition.  The history recounted throughout the Bible recounts the unfolding of God’s plan to save the human race from this curse of original sin.

God made covenants (or solemn, unbreakable agreements) with our forefathers beginning with Noah and continuing with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and Moses.  He sent prophets (or seers) to tell us the right way to live and warn humanity of the consequence of bad behavior.

God spoke to all of us in various ways throughout the ages reminding us of his love for us and his desire for us to return to him through righteous living.  And eventually, God spoke to us directly through His own Son Jesus Christ.  God’s redemptive plan to free mankind from this curse of original sin and restore our original destiny to share God’s blessed life was fulfilled through the birth, life, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, assumption into heaven, and the glorification of the human nature of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the God-Man, and the second person of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).  Simply put, we couldn’t save ourselves, so God sent His Son into the world to do it for us.

This redemptive act is beautifully summarized in St. John’s Gospel (3:16, 17):  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Why would God do this?  Because he loves us all dearly!   We’re his children.  He could no more abandon us than a good mother could abandon her children. 

This in a nutshell is the Good News (or Gospel) of our salvation: God offers this free gift of redemption and salvation from original and actual sin to anyone who will believe in Him or have faith, is baptized in His name: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or the Holy Trinity), and then perseveres in a life of love for God and their neighbor by striving to live honestly, decently, ethically, and morally good in accordance with God’s teachings.

Since the early years of the Christian Church they have faithfully recited the Apostles Creed (or variation of it) during their worship services.  And it succinctly describes what Christians believe in:  I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.  He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.

When people asked Jesus how a person should live a truly good life he answered (Matthew 22:37-40): Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

This is the law of love that Jesus commanded for his followers, which is beautifully described in detail in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7.  In His Sermon on the Mount, he made the practical connection between the written Jewish law and loving God and others. 

He taught that it’s not enough to have faith in God to save us we must also persevere in love for God and others.  For example, He taught that it wasn’t enough to love our friends and relatives or those who love us; we must also love our enemies or those who treat us poorly. 

The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:4-8,13) explained this law of love further by describing the virtues of faith, hope, and love that practicing Christians should strive for: Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

Persevering in a life of love for God and others is what practicing Christians strive for their whole lives.  Salvation is a process of being liberated or freed from evil or from the undesirable through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  We can’t simply say, “I believe in God!”, and all our troubles and bad habits will magically disappear.  It doesn’t work that way.  Ask anyone who’s addicted to alcohol, illegal drugs, or anything else?  God certainly didn’t need our help to create us, but He certainly won’t save us without our help.  It takes time and effort and perseverance.  The old adage God helps those who help themselves is quite true.  There’s also an old adage that says For every step you take towards God, God takes two steps towards you.    

And remember, that God has given all of us the capacity to choose good rather than evil; although, our freedom to choose good is wounded by this curse of original sin.  We overcome sin and bad behavior in our lives through our daily, continued faith and trust in God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and through our continued obedience to His will and moral edicts. 

When we fail to live up to God’s high standards, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and continue on our Christian struggle.  And, if we’ve wronged anyone, we need to reconcile with him or her by asking forgiveness and making amends.  But what we don’t do is give up and become despondent because it’s too difficult!  It is more challenging and difficult to live a life of love than it is to live a life of hate.  It’s harder to be good than it is to be bad.  If you don’t want to be good, then all you have to do is nothing! 

Consider what Jesus taught about the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46): he never said we’d be judged on how religious we were, but on how we treated others especially the poor, the dispossessed, the powerless, and the disenfranchised.  Did we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned?  In other words, did we help bring the Kingdom of God into the world through love, peace, justice, and good behavior?  Or, did we act like everyone else and oppress the poor and downcast, lie to others, cheat others, treat others badly, and hate our neighbors? 

Christians believe that we cannot separate our faith from our everyday lives.  We cannot compartmentalize our lives by behaving righteously in some circumstances and behaving unrighteously in others.  What good does it do to go to church on Sundays but behave badly during the rest of the week?  We can oftentimes fool other people; sometimes we can even fool ourselves; but we can never fool God!

Persevering in our Christian faith is an integral and necessary part of becoming better people.  But ultimately, Christians don’t believe we become better people by getting smarter or through our own hard work, but through our trust and faith in God to work in us and through us.  We must try to do our best and then let God do the rest. 

Some call this cooperating with God because all we can really offer to God is our free will.  St. Paul wrote (Ephesians 2:8-10): For by grace you have been saved through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Because of this, practicing Christians don’t claim to always be perfect, upstanding citizens.  We’re human beings—just like everyone else—full of flaws, weaknesses, and insecurities.  But the process of persevering to overcome our sinful ways and live honestly, decently, ethically, and morally is what God is looking for from us, and then his grace will do the rest in us.  St. Paul discussed the necessity of persevering in our Christian faith this way (Philippians 2:12-13): Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

These are all encouraging things to ponder, but what about the big problem that the philosopher Qoheleth brought up in his book Ecclesiastes: the problem of death?  Recall that Qoheleth believed that it is death and our fear of death that make life so pointless, frustrating and meaningless for all of us.  Well salvation is not only being liberated from evil or the undesirable but it’s also being liberated from death!

For practicing Christians, our hope is in the resurrection from the dead so that we no longer have to live in fear of death.  As Christ conquered death by rising from the dead, we believe that someday he’ll raise us from the dead as well.  Our belief in the resurrection from the dead is what gives Christians hope beyond our futile existence that somehow God will one day raise us from the dead to an everlasting life with Him in heaven.  And since we no longer have to live in fear of death (our necessary end), we can live a meaningful life knowing that our persistence in living honestly, decently, ethically, and morally won’t go unrewarded.

In short, based on the premise of original sin, redemption, and salvation, we can become Christians through faith and baptism.  And then we become better people by persevering in a life of love for God and others through honest, decent, ethical, and moral living.  These are what save us.  For Christians, faith is the beginning but the end result is love for God and others.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

CHANGE YOURSELF AND YOU’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: Part 2


CHANGE YOURSELF AND YOU’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: Part 2

Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), a Harvard University Professor of Psychology, developed a widely accepted theory on the stages of our moral development in the 1970s.  Basically, he believed that people progressed in their moral reasoning and ethical behavior through a series of six identifiable stages:

Level 1: Pre-Conventional

1. Obedience and Punishment orientation—a primary school level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because they are told to do so; they’re rewarded for their good behavior and punished for their bad behavior.

2. Self-Interest orientation—a middle school level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because it’s in their own self-interest.

Level 2: Conventional

3. Social norms orientation—a high school level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave in order to gain the approval of others.

4. Law and Order orientation—a mature adult level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because they want to be dutiful, law-abiding citizens.

Level 3: Post-Conventional

5. Social Contract orientation—a personally intrinsic level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because of social mutuality and a genuine interest in the welfare of others.
 
6. Principled Conscience orientation—a universal principled level of moral and ethical behavior where people behave because of their individual conscience.

Dr. Kohlberg believed that people cannot skip from one stage of moral development to another, but that we can only progress through each stage one at a time.  In order to get to the next higher stage of moral development, we must comprehend a moral rationale for going to the next higher level.  In fact, most all of us often will regress to earlier stages of moral development and have to relearn the rationale for getting back on track (e.g. people issued tickets for moving violations, convicted criminals, those who are trying to overcome addictions like alcohol, those suffering the consequences of bad behavior, etc.)  He also didn’t believe the majority of us ever get to the last stages of moral development.  In the past century, maybe only Mahatma Gandhi or Saints like Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa ever achieved these levels.

Contemporary Psychologist and author, Dr. David Lieberman in his book Make Peace with Anyone makes a compelling argument that to be happy, have good relationships, and be psychologically balanced, a person must feel good about themselves.  Feeling good about ourselves is called self-esteem or self-respect or self-love.  And self-esteem is a byproduct of how we live our lives.  If we do not respect ourselves then we cannot truly love ourselves nor respect and love others.

In order to have self-esteem, Dr. Lieberman argues, we must consistently make wise and morally good choices.  In other words, if we do what is right we’ll (more often than not) feel good about ourselves and improve our self-esteem; but if we do what is wrong, we’ll feel guilt, embarrassment, and shame and lose our self-esteem. 

Furthermore, our personal freedom and independence allow us to make choices; so if we’re coerced into making certain choices, it’ll rob us of our personal freedom and harm our self-esteem.  This is what sparks many human conflicts, writes Dr. Lieberman.

Dr. Lieberman explains that there are three underlying motivations behind our choices: 1) We can choose what feels good (Dr. Kohlberg’s level one); for example, overeating, laziness, abusing drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, or any immoderate, unwholesome, behavior; 2) We can choose what makes us look good (Dr. Kohlberg’s level two); for example, not living for ourselves but for our image; any behavior that projects a worldly, materialistic, self-centered image; being consumed with money, power, control, or vanity; or 3) We can choose what is good! (Dr. Kohlberg’s level three).  Only the third alternative of choosing responsibly and wisely will give us true freedom, self-respect, improve our self-esteem, and allow us to live at peace with others.

Reverend Robert Fulghum in his famous book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten eloquently describes the wisdom we all learned as children:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday school. These are the things I learned:
             Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Flush.

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup—they all die. So do we.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned—the biggest word of all—LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere: The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation; ecology and politics and equality and sane living. Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all—the whole world—had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess. And it is still true, no matter how old you are—when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

In short, the keys to living well are really quite simple: if we wouldn’t allow our children to behave in certain ways towards others, why would we behave that way towards others?

In a popular motivational fable by an unknown author there was once an old man who had a habit of walking along the beach every morning.  One morning when he went to the beach he discovered there had been a strong storm the previous night that had washed thousands of starfish up onto the beach.

Then at a distance, he spotted a young man dancing along the beach. How odd the old man thought to himself; the beach is littered with soon to be rotting starfish and this young guy is dancing?  So he ran up to him to see why he was dancing.  As he got closer he saw that the young man wasn’t dancing at all but instead was reaching down and picking up starfish and very gently throwing them back into the ocean.

The old man asked him, “Good morning! What are you doing?”

The young man replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean!”

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” the old man asked.

The young man replied, “The sun is up, and the tide is going out; and if I don’t throw them back in the ocean they’ll surely die!”

“Young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach, and there must be thousands and thousands of starfish along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young man listened politely, then bent down and picked up another starfish and gently threw it back into the ocean and said, “It made a difference for that one!”

The old man paused a bit and contemplated the enormity of the task and then bent down, picked up a starfish and gently threw it back into the ocean....

Each of us has the innate ability to learn from experience and make free choices in our lives.  This is what sets us apart from the animals.  We’re not locked into certain behavior patterns.  Each of us has the freedom to choose to become better people: more honest, decent, ethical, virtuous, and morally good people.  We can choose to continue to live self-centered lives, or we can choose to live others-centered lives.

Bill FitzPatrik of the American Success Institute (www.success.org) wrote, You do not need to prove your might at the expense of others.  You do not need diplomas, awards or the acclaim of others to know who you are.  You do not need an audience to do the right thing.  You do not need a lot of money or many physical possessions to be happy.  You do not need stand first in line.  You do not need coaxing to fulfill your religious obligations.  You do not need lesions to act civilly.  You do not need prompting to help someone in need.  
 
When we live honest, decent, ethical, virtuous, and morally good lives, we make life more meaningful and better not only for ourselves but for everyone else around us.  When we change for the better we help make the whole world a little better.  The Greek and Jewish philosophers all believed this, the science of psychology affirms this, and deep down inside we all know this to be true (natural law).  Mahatma Gandhi said: We must become the change we want to see.  So if we want to make our world a better place to live in, then, individually, each one of us must change for the better.   Change yourself and you’ll change the world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

CHANGE YOURSELF AND YOU’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: Part 1

CHANGE YOURSELF AND YOU’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: Part 1

Most of us discover at a young age that life is not always fair, and we don’t always get what we need or want or even deserve. As children, many of us came to realize that other children may have come from better families, lived in better homes, wore nicer clothing, played with better toys, or were more healthy, attractive, athletic, intelligent, outgoing, or personable.  If you were fortunate enough to have been blessed with any of those qualities, eventually you may have figured out that not everyone had been blessed like you….

Until we first experienced unkindness, hatred, or betrayal, we lived in an innocent, kind, loving, and just world.  It was probably as close to heaven as most of us have ever seen.

The differences we discovered as children most likely became more pronounced during our difficult teenage years as those who were below average struggled to get by in a world that values the best, the brightest, the attractive, the athletic, the talented, the articulate, the extroverted, the gregarious, the popular, and the well to do.

As adults, most of us have faced unfairness, injustice, discrimination, disappointment, selfishness, cruelty, and hatred.  Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the talent, resources, or the opportunity to be financially successful.  Life and work can be analogous to four-letter-words at times.  Whether we came from humble beginnings, we were handicapped in some way, we made some poor choices in life, we experienced broken relationships, or we were victims of circumstances beyond our control (sadly) we all say to ourselves at times: life is not fair!

But certainly not all of life is drudgery and misery.  If that were the case, we’d all be in a hopeless situation.  With all its ups and downs, life can indeed be beautiful when we experience the wonders of nature, the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the stars in the night sky, the love, support, and fellowship of family and friends, the excitement of romance, the birth of a child, the unconditional love of a pet, the kindness of strangers, the excitement of something new, the joy of learning, the satisfaction of accomplishment, or the pleasures of good food and drink.... 

Life can be blessings and curses, joys and sorrows, comforts and sufferings, pleasures and pains, health and sickness, fairness and injustice, love and hate, good and bad, successes and failures.... 

But the unkindness and injustice of life takes on a whole new meaning when we see the rich, the powerful, the attractive, the eloquent, the articulate, or the talented rewarded for their immoral, unethical, or dishonest behavior.  And it’s hard to understand why those who habitually mistreat and oppress others are rewarded with greater wealth, power, or prestige. Sometimes good people are punished while bad people are rewarded.  It’s one of life’s great mysteries.

So maybe if we petitioned our government they could pass laws making life more honest and fair for everyone?  Maybe we could pass a constitutional amendment that will ensure that everyone treats everyone decently?  Unfortunately the government couldn’t possibly pass enough laws or hire enough people to enforce honesty, decency, and fairness. In fact, the government suffers from the same problems we do because people are people regardless of who they are or where they work.  Anywhere you go in the world you’ll find dishonest, immoral, and unethical people. (Sadly, even in sacred places.)  It’s quite impossible to force people to treat others well and to live honest, decent, ethical, virtuous, and morally good lives.  What the world really needs is a change of heart…and only God can do that!

Ethical philosophers and thinkers throughout the ages (like the famous Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno) have pondered why and how we should live honest, ethical, virtuous, and decent lives.  Marcus Aurelius, a famous Roman Emperor from 161-180 A.D. and a practicing Stoic philosopher, wrote in his book Meditations, We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes season after season without thinking of the grapes it has borne.   In other words, living a good and decent life is self-evident in nature (or natural law).  We don’t need laws to be written to tell us that lying, cheating, stealing, or killing is wrong.

The famous philosopher Plato (a student of Socrates) wrote in his book The Republic (circa 387 B.C.) an allegory called The Cave (which is probably the basis of all Western philosophical thought).  In the story, Socrates has a conversation with Plato’s brother Glaucon in which he describes a prehistoric theater deep inside a cave where the audience members, since their childhoods, are chained and held captive watching a shadow puppet show (similar to a movie theater today).  The show the captive audience watched were images of the real things and events in the world outside the cave. 

So one day an audience member was set free and told that the shadow puppet show he’d been watching since childhood were not at all real but merely illusions of reality.  At first he was skeptical and didn’t believe it.  So to prove it to him, he was shown the puppets and fire that produced the shadows he’d watched since childhood, but he still wouldn’t believe it.  Finally, he was forcibly dragged out of the cave into the sunlight of the real world.

Initially he was shocked by what he saw as his eyes painfully adjusted to the bright sunlight.  But after awhile, he came to see and appreciate the beauty of the world as it really is outside of the cave.

Later on, however, he started to feel pity for the captives still imprisoned deep inside the cave.  So after much thought, he decided to venture back inside the cave in order to tell them the truth about the cave: that it was all a lie and a poor reflection of reality.

After he went back into the cave and told the others about the real world outside the cave they just laughed at him and said he’d lost his sight and his mind.  He desperately tried to prove it to them, but they still wouldn’t believe him.  And eventually they killed him since they didn’t want him to lead others astray.

The protagonist in the allegorical story represents the countless prophets and sages throughout history that have tried and failed to enlighten society by speaking the truth (e.g. Socrates, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, Gandhi, or Mother Theresa).  Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860 A.D., a famous German philosopher) wrote, All truth passes through three stages: first, it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

The writings of the Greeks and many other philosophers throughout history continue to be studied to this day, but as we look around us we can see that most of their common sense ideas of how to live rightly haven’t been universally embraced?  Since honesty is rarely rewarded and unethical or immoral behavior is rarely punished, there’s little reason why any of us should strive to live honest, decent, ethical, virtuous, and morally good lives.  The fact is that nice people—more often than not—do finish last!  And it is this sad fact of life that makes our lives so frustrating and meaningless at times!

Around the same time as the famous Greek philosophers, a little known Jewish philosopher and sage named Qoheleth (or the Preacher) asked these same questions in his Biblical book of Ecclesiastes: what is the meaning of life and what is the best way to live?

Qoheleth explored the benefits of a pleasure-seeking, hedonistic lifestyle; he explored the benefits of wealth and success; he explored the benefits of hard-work and academic pursuits; he explored the benefits of power and weakness; he explored the benefits of knowledge, wisdom, and foolishness; in fact, he explored the benefits of just about everything imaginable and he still came to the same conclusion—they’re all pointless, futile and ultimately meaningless!

The reason Qoheleth believed that life (apart from God) was so futile and meaningless was that, ultimately, nothing lasts forever (including us).  Nothing we learn or do or pursue or build or accomplish will have any lasting consequences and eventually everything will be forgotten.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person or a bad person, beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish, smart or stupid, rich or poor, a success or a failure, moral or immoral, honest or dishonest, ethical or unethical; ultimately we all suffer the same fate.  So it is death and our fear of death—Qoheleth believed—that makes our lives so pointless, frustrating, and meaningless!

So Qoheleth despaired of life and wondered (like we still do) if it would have been better not to have been born than to live a meaningless life?  Socrates had a similar thought when he said: The unexamined life is not worth living! 

But then in a moment of clarity, Qoheleth realized the obvious: that the reason life was so unfair was precisely because of all the unkindness, injustice, and evil in the world!  Evil, injustice, and oppression are perpetuated by the dishonest, unethical, and immoral ways people behave towards each other.  And it is these that make life so pointless, frustrating and meaningless.

Yet as surely as there’s evil, injustice, and death in the world there’s surely divine justice and retribution, Qoheleth believed.  Despite life’s unfairness, it’s still a very precious gift from God.  And God wants all of us to enjoy our lives, our relationships, our work, and all the other blessings He has given us, but He also wants us to live honestly, decently, ethically, virtuously, and morally good because living this way makes life more meaningful for all of us.

And in the end when we all have to stand before God, our creator, and give an account of our lives, what will He say to us?  Did we love Him?  Did we love others?  Or did we live self-centered, sinful lives, and treat others poorly?

It’s all right to search for purpose and meaning in our lives, but it doesn’t exempt us from obeying God’s moral and ethical commands.  The meaning of life, Qoheleth believed, is not found in any human endeavors; rather, it’s found in our faith in and our obedience to God and his moral edicts for our lives.  We still may never completely understand why life is so unfair, but our faith in God’s eternal plans, in His divine providence, and our obedience to His moral edicts will give us joy, peace-of-mind, and true and lasting meaning for our lives.

Life’s meaning is not found in accumulating material possessions, accomplishing great things, or becoming rich and powerful but simply in how well we live our lives and how well we treat other people.

We should strive for goodness not only because we believe that God will hold us all accountable for the way we lived our lives, but more importantly because only God can make our lives truly meaningful.  And when we live honestly, decently, ethically, virtuously, and morally good we’ll not only make our own lives more meaningful, we’ll also make it more meaningful for everyone else we come into contact with. 

Qoheleth beautifully summarized his thoughts in this way (excerpts from Ecclesiastes chapters 9, 11, 12 NIV): So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad… [So] go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do… Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days.  For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.  I have seen something else under the sun: the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all…  However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all…  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

Marcus Aurelius wrote something similar: Words that everyone once used are now obsolete, and so are the men whose names were once on everyone's lips….  For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried in oblivion.  Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon as a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are 'out of sight, out of mind.'  In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance?  Absolutely nothing.  So what is left worth living for?  This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself.

Part 2 to be posted next week.... 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

AND THE SCROOGE AWARD GOES TO... Corporate America!

by Henry Blodget|   Dec. 4, 2012, Business Insider

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/companies-need-to-share-more-profits-with-employees-2012-12#ixzz2ETppksQa


I wanted to share this really great essay from Business Insider. This is what my friend Allen (blogspot: http://allenandson.blogspot.com/) and I have been preaching for the past 10 years!
Bryan

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A More Virtuous Form of Capitalism

In an early television episode of the science fiction series Star Trek the Next Generation, the crew of The United Star Ship Enterprise recovered an old, unmanned late 21st century spacecraft carrying the cryogenically frozen bodies of dozens of people who had died of various causes. Rather than have their bodies buried their families chose instead to have their bodies cryogenically frozen and sent into space in hopes that in the future there would be medical cures for the diseases they succombed to.  Fortunately for them the ship’s doctor managed to revive many of the deceased patients using advanced 24th century medicine.


As the story unfolded, a man who’d been quite wealthy back in the 21st century desperately wanted to reclaim his entire fortune (hopefully with interest). But he was astonished to discover that in the 24th century all forms of monetary economic exchange were now obsolete, and people no longer had to work for money to support themselves because all their human needs were met through technology, which costs nothing! People only worked because they wanted to improve themselves as human beings and help society advance.

 
But this story is only science fiction and unfortunately in our lifetimes we’ll probably never live to see that day. Life’s sad reality is that the natural law of scarcity decides how big of a piece of pie each of us will get in life. Some will get more, others less, and some will get none at all. So unless you’re fabulously wealthy, most of us must trudge through life working (or depend on someone who does) in order to survive. And most who have been living and working awhile know that life and work at times can be analogous to four-letter-words. The vast majority of Americans are employees and must sell their services (physical or mental) to an employer for pay. Very few of us are self-sufficient. The cost of food, clothing, housing, transportation, and health care have become exorbitant, and it takes at least two incomes for a typical family to make ends meet.


And since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, families are being squeezed even more with record high unemployment and growing under-employment (people working below their skill level). Companies are doing more with less people by squeezing every ounce of productivity out of their employees. Employees, afraid for their own survival, are buckling under the pressure. The meltdown of the home mortgage industry has pushed home foreclosures to levels not seen since the Great Depression, and a greater percentage of families are now renting rather than buying. And personal bankruptcies are at an all time high too.


Americans are becoming desperate and losing their faith in the American capitalist system. In the past thirty years unbridled greed has led to business scandal after business scandal. In the 1980s there was the Savings and Loan debacle; in the 1990s and 2000s there was Sunbeam, Enron, Adelphia, WorldCom, and Boeing; and most recently there was Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, AIG and many other Wall Street firms. These companies only make up only the tip of the iceberg of dishonest and unethical companies that have shaken our faith in American capitalism.


Let’s take a look at some startling statistics. The chart below shows the income inequality that preceded the Great Depression which began in 1929 and the income inequality that preceded the Great Recession which began in 2008.
 



The chart below shows the distribution of wealth in the U.S. as of 2007.
 


The chart below tracks average hourly pay (in constant 2008 dollars) between 1964 and 2008.




In the chart below, compare the average CEO’s pay and corporate profits with that of the average production worker’s pay and the federal minimum wage.




The numbers speak for themselves but suffice it to say that since 1970 the disparity of wealth and income in the U.S. has become more pronounced. We could even make the argument that this degree of disparity hasn’t existed in America since the gilded age of the late 19th century. This is not an issue of envy of the rich, but more of an issue of fairness and proportionality.

Charles Darwin (the famous author of On the Origin of Species) did not come up with the famous phrase, “survival-of-the-fittest;” that, in fact, came from a lesser known Social Darwinist and contemporary of Darwin named Herbert Spencer. Basically Spencer extended the concept of evolution to justify economic and social inequality. He thought that if we just allowed the rich to get richer that it would be good for the whole of society because it would discourage the poor from having more children and ultimately surviving (a popular 19th and early 20th century belief call eugenics). Unfortunately, many academics, politicians, and pundits still advocate some form of economic Social Darwinism today. In the 19th century it was called laissez-faire capitalism; today it has been re-packaged under the name free-market capitalism.


In the 19th century, the economic abuses of laissez-faire, free-market capitalism gave birth to the disastrous economic philosophies of socialism, communism, and fascism. And when you examine the differences between laissez-faire, free-market capitalism and these opposing economic philosophies one thing you’ll discover they all have in common is their oppression and economic slavery of their workers. Essentially they’re different sides of the same coin. On one side, large multinational corporations control the means of production whereas on the other side the government does. Since the 19th century, most developed economies have regulated capitalism in order to prevent a repeat of those abuses.


The famous economist Milton Friedman (1912 - 2006) of the University of Chicago was a big proponent of an unfettered, laissez-faire, free-market form of capitalism with little government intervention. In an influential article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in September 1970 titled The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits, Friedman makes the case that nothing other than the profit motive should drive business decisions. Not altruism, not the good of employees, not the good of society, not the good of any other business stakeholder should be considered other than what is good for the shareholders (or owners) of the company. And what is good for the shareholders is simply maximizing profit.


Since then, many academics, politicians, and corporations have embraced this philosophy that the sole purpose of business should be to maximize profits for the shareholders and nothing else. CEO pay has become inexorably linked to the prevailing share price, and federal law stipulates that a company must value their corporation at the prevailing share price (mark-to-market or fair-value accounting). Executive salaries have become exorbitant while the average worker has seen their pay (in terms of buying power) decline. Further, there has been an overall decline in the number of well-paying jobs due to extensive outsourcing of jobs overseas especially in the manufacturing sectors.


Since the publication of Friedman’s article, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that the shift in focus to maximizing profits for shareholders has led to a profit-at-any-price mentality by business managers. And today many academics, politicians, and pundits believe that we should return to the laissez-faire, free-market capitalism of the 19th century believing it will lead to greater economic prosperity. They believe that if we loosen the reins of government regulation then businesses will prosper and the economy as a whole will improve. They say, “a rising tide raises all ships.” But that same rising tide can swamp any boat that’s anchored to the bottom.


The debate between how much governmental oversight businesses should have is immaterial. What we should be asking ourselves is what the real purpose of business should be? Is the purpose of business to only make money as Friedman believed or is it something more than that? Do we continue to follow Friedman’s philosophy or do we develop a new one? In short, I believe the solution to our economic woes today lie in developing a more virtuous form of capitalism!


In a recent Wall Street Journal (7/28/12) essay Why Capitalism Has an Image Problem, Charles Murray (of the American Enterprise Institute) makes a very good argument that in order to be successful capitalism must be coupled with virtue. He writes, “Historically, the merits of free enterprise and the obligations of success were intertwined in the national catechism. The freedom to act and a stern moral obligation to act in certain ways were seen as two sides of the same American coin. Little of that has survived. To accept the concept of virtue requires that you believe some ways of behaving are right and others are wrong always and everywhere. Correspondingly, we have watched the deterioration of the sense of stewardship that once was so widespread among the most successful Americans and the near disappearance of the sense of seemliness that led successful capitalists to be obedient to unenforceable standards of propriety. Many senior figures in the financial world were appalled by what was going on during the run-up to the financial meltdown of 2008. Why were they so silent before and after the catastrophe? Capitalists who behave honorably and with restraint no longer have either the platform or the vocabulary to preach their own standards and to condemn capitalists who behave dishonorably and recklessly. And so capitalism's reputation has fallen on hard times and the principled case for capitalism must be made anew.”


Let’s start by defining what the real purpose of business is: it’s simply to satisfy a customer’s need and to survive. When a business consistently and successfully satisfies a customer’s need then they’ll make a profit and satisfy their own need to survive. So the heresy I’d like to propose is that profit is a natural byproduct of consistently and successfully satisfying customer’s needs, and not the other way around. Henry Ford said it best, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor kind of business!”


If companies were only in business to make money then anything they did to make more money would be all right. For example, if a business did not honor their warranties they’d leave their customers with defective merchandise or poorly performed services. Customers in turn would stop buying from them. If a business consistently mistreated and indiscriminately fired their employees, they’d have a hard time keeping their employees and getting new people to work for them. And what if businesses wouldn’t pay their bills? Suppliers and creditors would stop doing business with them. If a company’s only business is making money without considering the consequences to its customers, employees, suppliers, and creditors then it won’t be in business for long. To survive, a business has to strike the right balance between making money and satisfying their customer’s needs.


So if you think about it, businesses aren’t really in business just to make money; they’re really in business to satisfy their customer’s needs. And if they’re consistent and successful in satisfying their customer’s needs, then they’ll earn a profit and the firm will thrive and survive. If a business doesn’t make a profit it’s an indication they’re not successfully satisfying the needs of their customers.


Unfortunately, over the past three to four decades publicly traded companies have been more fixated on only satisfying the needs of their owners, short-term investors, and managers at the expense of their customers, employees, suppliers, creditors, and distributors. And all the businesses that have behaved unethically, immorally, dishonestly, and illegally over the past few decades are just a reflection of the American business culture today.


Just as the crime-rate in a city is a general indicator of the health of a community, so the crime-rate in business is a general indicator of the health of business in our society. Where corporate scandals are high, so are greed, profit-at-any-price, and unfair dealings with customers, employees, suppliers, creditors, and distributors.


For the most part, companies meet the community’s moral, ethical, and legal standards because it is in their own best interest to do so. The consequences of breaking laws or being sued by consumers are higher than the cost of doing the right thing in first place. Laws are generally made to criminalize what is wrong, but do not legislate what is right. There are unenforceable standards of right and wrong.


Some examples would be that murder is a crime, but no law can be passed forcing someone to love their neighbor. Embezzlement is a crime, but no law can be passed forcing someone to be generous with their employees. Perjury is a crime, but no law can be passed forcing someone to be consistently honest.


In the same way, many companies have rules set out in inspiring mission statements, guiding principles and value statements, but when push comes to shove their real mission and goals are to meet the shareholders earnings expectations and to drive management bonuses (which are usually based on short-term profit goals). And many times this is done at the expense of the other stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers, creditors, and distributors) who really do add the most value to their organizations.


So companies focus on short-term profitability, while keeping regulatory and liability issues in their peripheral vision. They avoid doing what is absolutely wrong, but their corporate culture does not focus on doing what is right.


I believe that American business in general has become greedy and short sighted because most business leaders have lost their moral and ethical way. Without a moral and ethical foundation, people naturally choose what makes them feel good, or look good, but not always what is good. They choose the least painful or the most profitable solution, and they use situational ethics because they have no absolute standard of what is right or wrong. There’s only acceptable or unacceptable options in any given situation.


By returning to a more virtuous form of capitalism by following tried and true moral and ethical guidelines we can define standards of conduct that will prevent moral and ethical lapses in business. Just as the founding fathers of America applied Judeo-Christian values to our Constitution, yet separated religious organizations from civil affairs, so too can businesses apply these same Judeo-Christian moral and ethical teaching to create a culture of doing what is right while not infringing on anyone’s personal religious beliefs. If you read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution what you discover is that these moral and ethical principles are found in Natural Law. (In other words they’re common sense. You don’t need to know the ten commandments to know that lying, cheating, or stealing are wrong.)


Fostering a business attitude of consistently and successfully satisfying customer’s needs is a legitimate profit strategy because it helps companies focus on what’s really important: their customers, employees, suppliers, creditors, and distributors. These are the stakeholders who really do add the most value to a company. If a company satisfies the needs of these important stakeholders it will ultimately be more profitable, and this will satisfy the needs of the other important stakeholders: the owners, investors and managers of a company. And society in general will benefit from a thriving business. Warren Buffett said it well, “If a business does well, the stock eventually follows.”


It’s essential that a company make a profit otherwise it will go out of business and not survive. The late Steve Jobs once said,Sure, what we do has to make commercial sense, but it's never the starting point. We start with the product and the user experience.So rather than narrowly focusing on profits, companies should focus instead on satisfying the various needs of its primary stakeholders: the customers, employees, suppliers, creditors, and distributors. Doing this will not only make a company more profitable, it will produce much better results, prolong its life, and provide its employees and managers with a more fulfilling livelihood.


Profit, after all, is a natural byproduct of consistently and successfully satisfying customer’s needs. Over the long run, working and doing business in an honest, ethical and moral fashion will be more profitable and professionally rewarding. Whereas giving in to short-term, expedient solutions is actually more expensive in the long run than doing the right thing in the first place.

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