Saturday, January 27, 2007

You knew it was wrong, so why did you do it?
This question is loaded with ideas and directions to take conversation. The image implies we are more likely to engage in wrong acts under the condition of anonymity or privacy. It also reminds me that some moral lapses are socially acceptable, some are joked about in friendly company, and some, a person will be shunned for. But regardless of the act and which social mores it offends or agrees with, each individual has personal convictions as to what is right to do and what is wrong. So, why would anyone choose to do wrong?

To get a simple, straightforward approach to the question, I asked my two sons, ages 12 and 10, to respond to it. Son Number One said, “If I know something is wrong, I don’t do it”. That's an incredible answer. If I didn't know my son, I might think he was being smart or trying to please me with his answer. But he is telling the truth. Son Number Two, who my family fondly (I hope) says is the male version of me, had this to say: “Because doing it feels better than not doing it”.

Both of my sons desire something good. However, the older one is able to stand above his immediate situation and determine that obedience is a higher good than pleasure; his younger brother is stuck in the pleasure spectrum and sees only that one pleasure is greater than another—eating a candy bar (his example) feels better than going without; and apparently also feels better than pleasing his mother, who asked him to save the chocolate for after dinner.

Socrates claimed, rather provocatively, that “no one errs willingly”. In this view of things, my younger son simply does not have sufficient knowledge to direct his will toward the right thing. And this may be true, depending on how we define “knowledge”. However, from a practical point of view, most of us experience a sense of divided desire which sometimes leads to our choosing against our own knowledge of what is right.

Why do we do this? Looking back on times I chose to do what I knew was wrong, I would have to say, "I did it because I wanted to”. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., in his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, answers this question essentially the same way I did, when he quotes Woody Allen’s justification of his affair with the daughter of Mia Farrow, his then romantic partner. Allen said, simply, “The heart wants what it wants”.

And that is really the final answer. But it’s complicated, because my passion extends to things other than my own pleasure. In fact, I care very little for my own pleasure, in the grand scheme of things. I would lay it aside for many nobler virtues; including truth, justice, compassion, beauty, and love. I would tell you my passion for these things is much greater than my passion for pleasure or safety or comfort. So why am I sometimes willing to cast them aside for momentary and incomplete satisfaction?

My mother says I was a “strong-willed child”. Parents often say this with a chuckle, as if it is an exasperating but endearing quality in their child. I wonder: Can a little girl who does only what she pleases be said to have a strong will? Isn’t her will actually weak? Isn’t she enslaved to her passions and unable to command her body with her will? What is the human will and what role does it/ should it play in our choices? Can we strengthen our will? Can we weaken it? And what makes it so difficult for some of us to put the candy bar away until after dinner?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

It matters what I do in this world - But I have trouble seeing why.

My three year old son is standing behind me, singing a ditty to himself. It goes like this:

I’m going out in the snow,

I’m going out in the snow,

I’m going out in the snow,

It’s sledding time

He’s putting on his snow boots while he sings. He doesn’t stop to ask, “But why does it matter that I’m going out in the snow?”

Some of you may think it doesn’t. After all, what real change will come about because of my son’s small footprints in two inches of Michigan snow, or the sled-marks etched into the snow-dusted hill, as he inches his way down it? Perhaps as soon as this afternoon, his marks will have melted away.

The Israelite King Solomon, known for his profound wisdom, put it this way:

Generations come and generations go
but the earth remains forever...
There is no remembrance of men of old
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered by those who follow

The earth will not remember me; even my progeny will forget me when I have gone. When I dwell on this, I begin to wonder why it matters if I wash the dishes today, or just sit here and let them pile up. Other than making my life stressful when it comes time for dinner, does it really matter?

I wrote the following, over a year ago:

I'm forever trying to get at the thing behind everything we do: I get up in the morning so I can fix and eat breakfast, so that I have enough energy to clean up after it; and I wash up after breakfast so I have clean dishes for lunch, which I prepare and eat so that I have energy to clean up again. I launder my family's clothes so we have clean ones to dirty again. I go to sleep so I can get up again. I'm spending my life—all of it—raising my children, so that they can grow into adults who spend their lives raising their children, who in turn, will spend their lives raising children of their own.

Arguably, I was in a pretty bad place. I don’t think everyone winds up in this type of existential quandary. It has never occurred to my mother that someone might ask the question which I find on my tongue many mornings, as I roll out of bed: “Why does it matter what I do, anyway?” I am small. I am one person. And sometimes, even when I intend good, evil results; people get hurt.

Those of us who ask this question probably have in common the experience of faded dreams, broken hearts and repeated failure, with a history of disproportionate romanticism (though we will gloomily deny it). A box in my garage holds the evidence: impassioned, yellowed pages covered hastily in ink; the landscape of a heart bursting with energy and naiveté. In those days, I believed in positive change and imagined it could be set into motion, like dominoes, just by doing the right thing. These letters sit in my garage, year after year, and yellow further.

I did not lose faith, overnight; it was a long process. I could tell you battle stories. And you could tell me yours. But somewhere along the way, we chose to believe in a world that mocks our thirst for meaning and offers no justification for perseverance in doing good. And so, we throw up our hands and say, “I can’t see why it matters what I do”.

This is an existential conundrum, and here is why. To be human is to act. If I question the meaning of human action, I am questioning the meaning of existence; yet, it is I—an existing, acting being—who question. The questioning itself is action and by engaging in it, I am assuming it matters whether or not I ask the question. To be consistent I should go further and ask, “Why does it matter if I ask why it matters what I do?” And, “Why does it matter if I ask why it matters if I ask why it matters what I do?” As you can see, this quickly dissolves into absurdity.

With this in mind, the answer to the question, “why does it matter what I do?” may be simply, “Because I am human and I exist”. As an entity, I act upon other entities. As a human entity, I act within the context of human values. At this point, we can talk about human morality; where it is derived from, if it transcends time and culture, and what a moral conscience is, and we will likely have varying opinions.

But let’s keep it simple for a moment. Why does it matter that my son is prancing around the yard in his snow clothes? Listen: It matters because it is beautiful. It matters because it is pure action born of will, without pretension; and it is exactly what he was made to do. As adults, we are more complex versions of our child selves. Our reasoning powers should be stronger and our moral compasses more precise. Part of honing these skills is asking the existential questions and, as we explored in the previous post, this can lead to a fuller understanding of ourselves and the nature of life on earth. But we can come up short or with the wrong conclusion if we begin with wrong expectations or assumptions. One of these assumptions is that a gesture must be grand and its results measurable, for it to matter.

In the film, “Blood Diamond”, an African priest who has devoted his life to saving child-soldiers from the violence of war, has a pivotal conversation with the film’s main character, diamond smuggler Danny Archer, who is having an existential crisis of his own. It plays out something like this (my paraphrase):

Priest: I used to think that people were basically good, but some of them did bad things. Now it isn’t that clear. What about you, Danny, do you think people are basically good or bad?

Danny: I think they are just people. It’s what they do that makes them good or bad.

Priest: I agree. A moment of love, even in a bad man, gives his life meaning.

Predictably, the movie’s end finds the self-interested Danny embracing such a “moment of love”, at great cost to himself. It is a good story. It’s beautiful, redemptive. I cried.

I believe strongly in what the priest said. But it struck me, as I glowered around my house lamenting my inability to do something that really matters—like moving to Africa and helping the Poor—that I am still nursing an unrealistic, overly-dramatic idea of what it means to do something that matters. What if speaking gently to my child when I am angry gives my life as much meaning as would throwing myself in front of traffic for him? Late-hour redemption stories are a very small portion of the whole. They make for great movies. But most noble hearts are built one moment at a time, stretched out across the years.

We have just begun a new year, which sets us thinking about what we do and why it matters. Some of us have made resolutions; some of us are too jaded to make them. I have made a few, and I do hope this next year will see me become a more gracious human being. That probably won't happen dramatically or all at once. But it will happen if I keep choosing "moments of love" and, as difficult as it is, persevere in doing good—because I can and because it is what I was made to do.

Tomorrow won’t serve up the same soup du jour that sits in front of me today. So for now, I'm going to clasp a cold, tiny hand and head out to lay some boot tracks in the snow.