Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Breaking Bad or Building Good

I'll confess that I've been a fan of the AMC drama series Breaking Bad starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris and many others.

In case you haven't seen it, Breaking Bad is the two-year long story (shown over five seasons on television from 2008 to 2013) about Walter White (Bryan Cranston) of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a mild-mannered, married, father, and underemployed high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at age 50 (the beginning of the series).  Partnering up with his former failed chemistry student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a Meth cooker and addict himself, Walter turns to a life of crime by producing (cooking) and selling methamphetamine in order to pay for his cancer treatment and secure his family's financial future before he dies.  He tells Jesse in the beginning that he only needs around $700,000 and he'll quit the Meth business.  Towards the end of the series, Walter has become a drug kingpin accumulating over $80 million but leaves behind him a trail of bodies and broken lives. (I won't spoil the show for you in case you too want to watch the series on Netflix.)

I think all of us who've been around awhile can identify somewhat with the character Walter White and the moral and ethical choices he makes in his life. Over the course of the series, we learn that when Walter was in graduate school he co-founded a company with two classmates; they had a falling out and Walter sold his interest in the company for a mere $5000. Fast forward to Walter's 50th birthday and the company is now worth over a billion dollars!  Walter feels life has cheated him.  He lost out on the profits of the business he started with his two classmates, he's underemployed as a high school chemistry teacher, he's still living in a small starter home with his wife and handicapped son (with another child on the way), and he's just been given a cancer death sentence. Believing he has nothing to lose and everything to gain, he gets into the dangerous, deadly, and illegal Meth business.

This is why it's so important to have an Ethos, or a set of guiding ethical and moral beliefs in which we consistently strive to live our lives by such as the 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule, the teachings of Jesus, or societal mores. The character Walter White's god was his love of money and success. Literally he was willing to earn a profit at any price by lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, breaking the law etc.

Most of us wouldn't go to the extremes Walter did to earn a profit; nevertheless, we're all tempted to (in varying degrees) throughout our lives.  I'm reminded of a chilling story Jesus once told (in Matthew 12:43-45): "When an unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none.  Then he says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first."

One way of looking at this passage is that when we strive to become more virtuous by getting rid of our vices (unclean spirits) we essentially "clean house." But if we don't fill our house (our characters) with virtues our former vices can return with a vengeance and we can end up worse-off than before. Virtue is something we have to strive for despite the ups and downs of life. It's more common than not when bad things happen to us we digress to our vices. So if we stop persevering in virtue then our vices naturally return and it will be even harder to get rid of them. Ask any alcoholic, drug addict, or ex-smoker and they'll tell you they could relapse anytime if they don't stay vigilant in maintaining their sobriety or smoke-free lifestyle. Work to rid yourself of vices, but replace them with virtues so your vices don't return.

Breaking Bad is something that can happen to any of us which is why we need to keep Building Good.

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