6/27/11

Moral Compass or Energy Crisis

I've been thinking a lot lately about why so many people with clearly articulated moral stances fail to live up to their values. Of course there are no shortages of examples in the news with Congressman Weiner being the most recent public figure to fall from grace. Apart from his unfortunate last name which has been the subject of ridicule the likes of which hearken back to many a boy's worst middle school moments, Congressman Weiner has been finding out who his true friends are and it seems the list is decidedly smaller than it was when he was still thought to be a man of virtue and integrity. I suppose he will learn, after spending several weeks under blistering press scrutiny, what others in his spot have learned; there is no mercy for those who fail to live up to the values they so righteously espouse.

Is the moral crisis in our country so widespread that virtue is no longer something we can count on from our leaders? One might be tempted to draw that conclusion but I think it is wrong to do so. Of course the result of any infidelity has moral consequences but to frame infidelity, or any other "moral failure" for that matter, in strictly moral terms misses something important. I am nearly certain (I don't know the man personally so I can't speak for him as though he were a friend) that Congressman Weiner is authentic when it comes to his sense of right and wrong. In other words, I doubt he is having a problem finding true north in his life. Nevertheless, he seems to struggle with keeping to true north and has, as so many do, strayed off course in ways that have very serious consequences for him, his family, and his colleagues. Fortunately, the vast majority of us don't have our indiscretions exposed in such publicly humiliating ways - but, as Congressman Weiner discovered, new technologies have a downside when it comes to anonymous encounters.

Years ago, when I provided counseling services to sex addicts, I was always interested to see how morally true most of my clients were. They knew as well as anyone that the shame of doing something you know is wrong creates a strong compulsion to hide. As shame intensifies, psychic energy is used to build thick containment walls between the bad behavior and that which we love.

Anyone who struggles knows that morality has its limits. It's only as good as the resources we have to use our personal energy wisely. The moral compass can help us avoid temptation if we trust in confession and honest introspection. The moral compass can't tell us what we long for. In fact, it can do little more than tell us what we must do to to be above social reproach.

Sometimes, often many times, our longings seem at odds with what we must do to be above reproach - especially when we measure ourselves in terms of externals like achieving success in jobs we don't really like or buying a dream home that chains us to a mortgage so high we have to work two jobs plus keep a line of credit open for rainy days. Morality says (I know this is simplistic) that if I behave and do all the right things, good things will come to me. When the good things come and we long for something more, we feel betrayed by the very morality we have served. Rebellion is the next logical step. This rebellion is not social rebellion because we're smart enough to know what the consequences for that are. It's a private rebellion where we reward our appetites while pretending to walk the straight and narrow.

So how can someone be morally true and make immoral choices? How can someone claim to be virtuous while engaging in behavior that, if exposed, threatens to undo all he/she has worked to create? It's easy to be cynical and conclude that Congressman Weiner and his ilk (people with power) are really corrupt and untrustworthy but those who know people who have strayed would disagree. In fact, the real moral crisis is not the act of hiding an extramarital tryst, it's the resulting fallout that leads to irreparable loss of trust on the part of those who discover the person they trusted is not what he/she seems.

Mr. Weiner and his predecessors are not ignorant about right and wrong. The moral compass has not been lost or broken. Instead, they lack the capacity to manage personal energy. In that respect, they are in good company. The vast majority of us fail here. That leads me to ask myself, what do I have in common with Congressman Weiner, et. al? We both have lives, schedules, responsibilities, and commitments that are too big to manage. In addition, we are morally compelled to hold ourselves to a level of "goodness" that gives us no legitimate exit. In the dark quiet we wrestle with the Catch-22 question, "Which is the greater shame - having an affair or failing to live up to the expectations that we have indiscriminately accepted as personal "responsibility"?

I started to look at my own clay feet many years ago when I felt crushed by guilt and shame for not being able to please all the people in my life like I should. It was during a very intense period of introspection when I started to think seriously about energy management as the true safeguard against moral failure. Early on, I started to recognize that self-pity, the feeling that no one really understands how hard it is to have such a demanding life, opens the door for looking for love in all the wrong places.

Later, I began to realize that we energy spenders find it nearly impossible to accept that we have limits. In fact, we like to think energy is a limitless resource that we can call upon at any time for any reason. It's magical thinking of the highest order. I started to tell my clients that the best way to avoid a catastrophic fall is to understand and carefully manage your personal energy. "Think of energy as a real commodity. It's like money or fuel for your car. Your checking account balance or gas gauge are the feedback indicators you have to watch. Ignore these indicators and you're in debt and stranded. Once there, you are vulnerable to impulsive and irrational behavior."

The thought of limiting how much energy I give to someone or something feels counterintuitive, even dangerous. That's because in the unlimited energy economy I have called home for a good part of my life, I have to keep giving in order to get. It wasn't until I was willing to risk losing relationships I thought important that I allowed myself to be on a more disciplined energy budget. I had to accept that, like all other human beings, I needed to take time to refresh, make time to reflect, and prioritize my relationships so that those who know me best have the ability to say, "You're overdrawing your energy account" so you need to pull back.

I'd love to say I never overspend but anyone who knows me would laugh. It's never easy to live a disciplined life. Not because it takes enormous moral courage to do so but because it takes energy to manage energy. That means for everything I give and all the good work I do, I have to keep a running record. When I start to overdraw, I have to pull back and recharge. I always feel guilty when I do this and nearly always toy with the idea of spending beyond my means. This is never more true then when I feel responsible for something or someone.

I've never taken pleasure in seeing other people fall - even people who claim to be too good to fail. But the news of late keeps me mindful of my own vulnerability and reminds me that even people who have it all can lose it. As the proverb so insightfully asks, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?" The soul in this case it the energy center for each of us - that incredible, generative, powerhouse of love and goodness which must be managed with care.

5/18/11

Meant To Be

When something good or serendipitous happens in life, we tend to say, "It was meant to be." Conversely, there are those who use the same phrase when the unexpected, even tragic, happens. For the last few weeks the Mississippi River has been rising at record levels, swallowing lowlands in its path from Illinois to Louisiana. People whose livelihoods are drowning along with their land and homes are heard on the evening news commenting that these losses are "meant to be."

Lately I have been thinking about "meant to be." What things in my life have I punctuated with this conclusion? No doubt plenty. So why does the phrase leave me feeling conflicted? If I'm honest, I think it's dishonest because it suggests that fate, rather than the terrifying randomness of life, is to blame or thank for what happens.

There are three schools.

The first school holds that we are part of a larger story which has been written in its entirety and as such, is unalterable. We are destined to live our lives and accept what life brings by way of blessings and loss with no other rationale than what happens is "meant to be."

The second school suggests that we write our story entirely and that everything we do, experience, lose, and gain comes from us. If I get sick, I willed or invited illness. If I wish to be well, I can will that into existence. All things are "meant to be" inasmuch as I bend the cosmos to my will.

The third school maintains there is an interplay between destiny and free will. We are part of a larger story which cannot be altered. For example, I am a human being on planet Earth with no real ability to transport myself in this "reality" to another existence. That part is "destiny," directed by a force we call by some metaphysical name. Having accepted that there are some inalterable certainties, the third school says we have free will to choose our ultimate destiny. In other words, I can claim that something (even a bad something) is "meant to be" without feeling betrayed by God, the Universe or my own shortsighted optimism.

I hesitate to get too drawn into which school is correct because no one really knows, or at least I don't. And there are many rabbit holes us philosophical types can fall into that land us in strange places where everything is possible but nothing really happens.

I have concluded that "meant to be" is a pocket change response. By that I mean, it's a phrase we keep as emotional spare change. It doesn't require us to dig too deep but it has it's useful purpose. It's what we jangle to make sure we have enough spare change to keep life from bankrupting our hearts. We use this change as toll when we cross the bridge where the bully troll threatens to eat us for lunch as we travel over. We use it to toss into the fountain of life when we want our wishes to come true. We use it as an offering in order to demonstrate our humility and thankfulness for not being "less fortunate" than those who have fallen on hard times or for whom hard times are a way of life.

There are other pocket change responses which are equally useful: It's God's will, It can't be helped, All good things must come to an end, I'm sure he did something to deserve it, What goes around comes around....in fact, when I think about it, one could fill a small book with them.

It strikes me that these phrases serve another purpose as well. When I watch the evening news and I hear someone who just lost all they own and more say "It was meant to be," I have permission not to dig too deeply. Rather than wrestle with the unfairness of it all, the intolerable anxiousness of not knowing if the next flood or earthquake will take me and mine, I can have faith in the odds. The lioness takes a single wildebeest from the heard but the heard escapes and eventually forgets the loss - chalking it up to "meant to be" with some old sage in the back who lost his best friend to the lioness and senses his own impending doom adding, "I guess her number was up."

5/11/11

The End of the World

If you want to know when the world is ending, don't consult the Bible - talk to a 13 year-old.

The other day I was transporting one of my students to and from testing. He was talking about 2012, explaining matter-of-factly that the world was going to end. I listened mostly while he explained why he knew the world was facing impending doom. Scattered throughout his side of the conversation were anxious comments one would expect to hear from a boy of his age as he attempted to wrap his mind around imminent doom.

While he talked I saw myself as a 13 year-old having the same belief. There was a resonance between the younger me and my passenger. In an attempt to speak to both youngsters in the car I said, "People have been saying the world is going to end forever." Then I added, "The world ends for people every day all over the world but I don't think you have to worry yet about the world ending for you."

Years ago I read that kids of a certain age catastrophize their lives in order to prove to themselves they can survive. In other words, they impose a certain amount of manageable trauma on themselves and their friends and then set about overcoming it. The school of thought here is that children first use their heroes and antiheroes to create (or mimic) fearful situations, then conquer their fears by watching the hero overcome the antihero. As children become teenagers, heroes and antiheroes still play a role but it's more nuanced and more internalized. Still, the challenge is to scare oneself to death and live through it. I have often wondered if this isn't the reason horror movies are so popular among a certain younger demographic. I suspect this notion is unique to the Western world where trauma is not in our faces daily like it is in other parts of the world where trauma and death are ever present.

In two days of ferrying my student to and from a testing site 30 minutes from his home, we talked about zombies, monsters, snakes, spiders, getting poked with needles, and a host of other "scary" topics. In between these topics were ordinary topics about places he has lived, things he likes to watch on You Tube, his family, and his philosophical (as it were) notions about growing up.

I believe that sometimes God visits as a teenager to remind me that the world is destroyed and remade every day in a million different ways - some absurd and others all too real. Everyone carries anxiety, fear, hope, and the need to overcome adversity in varying proportions and degrees of intensity. When you're riding with a 13 year old, you see the primordial soup sitting in an open container; organic and unstirred. One of the things I like about working with children is that they are often more honest versions of the me I have learned to disguise in order to avoid shame, judgement, and misunderstanding.

As I get older and less concerned about how I appear to others, I am more able to appreciate the creativity, resilience, imagination, and optimism in children who are but a rough draft of who they will become. The urge to edit or redact childish and overly dramatic narratives has lessened in me. I am beginning to feel, for the first time in my life, that if the world truly ended tomorrow - the child in me would find a way to be reborn and live on.