I’m Not Very Kind, Either

July 29, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

This fellow that I knew for a while liked to tell people he was going to be “boldly honest” with them. He said it was an alternative to “brutally honest,” because he would tell truth that might be hard to hear but with good intentions. Unfortunately, one of the “boldly honest” things he said was that he no longer wanted to be a business partner with another man. This was less than two months after I paid the two men a lot of money to buy a share of their small business consulting firm. The existing accounts collapsed pretty quickly and my money went down the drain – boldly.

I like the idea of unabashed honesty. It appeals to the side of me that detests false praise, artificial sweetness, and glad-handing salesmen. It’s the voice of the little boy yelling, “The Emperor has no clothes!” It’s the voice of sanity and reason.

The fellow who wanted to be “boldly honest” claimed a distinction between honest statements that cause a lot of hurt compared to honest statements that are meant for good. I’m not convinced he was concerned with the good of others, but people were drawn in by his distinction.

Why? What is “brutally honest?” If the truth is so brutal that revealing it will cause pain, how should we judge withholding that truth? The problem is, most people won’t say the “brutally honest” thing to a person’s face, but they’ll say it to lots of other people behind their back. Is that nice? Is that kind? Is that a concern for the welfare of the person being talked about? I don’t think so. I think it’s just a shallow desire to be seen as “nice” plus a fear of confrontation. The motivation is self-interest. Self-interest is not kind, and it’s not even nice.

Scott Peck has written a lot about love in his books, most notably The Road Less Traveled. He doesn’t define love as emotion or affection. He says love is actively committing to the good of another person, most specifically that person’s psychological and spiritual growth.

This leads me to the very difficult realization that sometimes I have to tell someone a difficult truth because it is in that person’s best interest. It will contribute to that person’s growth. Withholding the comments will help the person stay stuck in some problem.

There’s an even more difficult realization. Sometimes the motivation to tell the other person the hard truth, the temptation to be “brutally honest,” is not to help or improve or do anything positive. It’s to vindicate myself. It’s to complain about a really difficult situation and try to end it. It’s to get revenge.

Too often my concern with justice, or forgiveness, or compassion, or humility, or mercy has little to do with the greater good of another person. It’s usually about me trying to demand something for myself.

Cut me some slack.

Show a little mercy.

Treat me with justice so I don’t have to deal with the unfairness of life.

Stop acting like you’re better than everyone else, because you’re pushing my own shame buttons.

I’m a mess!

I’ve already said I’m not nice. I don’t really want to be. I want to be kind. Unfortunately, I’m not very kind, either.

Kindness is my goal. It will be for the rest of my life, and it’s never going to get easy or boring.

Kindness is the balance of these many values in harmony. A key component of active love, kindness works for the good of others. As hospitality it offers shelter, and food, and clothing, and a warm fire. As consideration it is the small favor I did not even know I needed. As encouragement it is the gentle smile of comfort when I am in turmoil. As friendship kindness helps me see my own limitations and to forgive myself. As the bestowing of dignity it inspires me to look at a person’s heart instead of the mess he has made. It humbles me when I receive it and it fortifies me when I give it. It is the foundation of any lasting relationship.

Restoration

July 25, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

I was just retaking the VIA (Values in Action) Strengths Test and realized that there were a lot of questions about holding grudges, forgiving and forgetting, giving people second chances, and all sorts of things I didn’t want tested. “Forgiveness and Mercy” wound up ranked number 22 out of 24. Why, I ought to get those guys! The test is rigged and it’s unfair! I’ll show them….

Okay, in all fairness (to me), “Fairness, Equality, and Justice” ranked number 7. That probably gets in the way of the letting go and moving on thing.

I know it’s also a challenge for me that I grew up in a family with alcoholism on many branches. My poor uncle tried to drink himself to death and nearly succeeded, but the lung cancer from smoking foiled his plan.

Decades ago they were doing studies on Adult Children of Alcoholics and found out different people play different roles in alcoholic families. Some pretend everything’s perfect at home and try to hide the problems from other people. They also usually try to fit in and look “normal.” If they can get acceptance from people who are socially or financially successful they think they’ll feel good enough inside. It doesn’t really work because they usually go around fearing that someone will see the “truth” of their chaotic past and unsettled and insecure heart in the present. They can wind up pushing away family and childhood friends and anyone who can threaten the false image they’re trying to maintain.

That’s sure not me! But it is the way many people I know, in my family and from other chaotic backgrounds, live their lives. I’m on the other extreme. I’m like the voice of a prophet in the wilderness. When something’s not right and people are trying to smooth things over and pretend everything’s fine, I get anxious. In fact, even as a child my grandparents called me a sh** stirrer.

So you combine a drive for justice and fairness with a need to call things as I see them and it’s little wonder “forgive and forget” gets forgotten. Because I’ve seen what happens when people keep forgiving and trying to forget the behavior of really messed up people, I’m slow to forget offenses. I usually watch closely to see if this is a reasonably healthy person making a human error, or if I’m seeing signs of ongoing problems and need to be cautious. If someone is an addict, or a manipulator, or self-absorbed at the expense of others, the people around them often try to make excuses and “normalize” it. I’ve been super-sensitized and have become vigilant to keep from being hurt again and again by such people.

As a result, when someone treats me in a ways that hurts or offends, I have to wait a while because my Justice starts roaring. When I’m finally able to explain to the person how his or her behavior affected me, I do it. And I set a boundary, stating my expectation of how I will be treated going forward. Then I watch like a hawk. Healthy people apologize and instinctively give me words of kindness and respect to counter the hurt. With someone like that, forgiveness is very easy, and forgetting is… well, I’m still not good at forgetting, but I can sure stick it way over in the back corner of my mind.

But when I tell a person how he has offended or hurt me and he is defensive, even argumentative, and turns things around so that he is the “victim” because I stood up for myself, the path is different. I set boundaries to respect and protect myself, and also to show a path for the relationship to be restored. With such a person, I find, the best I’ll get is a commitment to make changes, but no real and lasting changes happen. He (or she) tries to convince me, persuade me, and sometimes even shame me into “moving on.” That helps me see even more clearly that the boundaries have to stay firm or I will be hurt again in the same way.

I don’t help myself, and I don’t serve a selfish and manipulative person, by allowing the patterns of mistreatment to continue. I do serve both of us by setting boundaries and showing a way to restoration of a broken relationship. Allowing the pattern to continue and “forgiving and forgetting” is just enabling with the most troubled people. Staying firm on the boundaries gives that person an opportunity for improvement and growth and a way to move away from disruptive and unhealthy behavior.

Anything less is just a shaky truce, and a relationship based on an unspoken agreement to pretend things are what they are not. It is shallow and unreal. Relationships between people who commit to the steps of restoration become richer and deeper. They are much stronger over time. I prefer to have no relationship over phony truces and pretense every time.

Restoration is healing after damage. It can be healing inside the soul of a person who has lived through hardship and mistreatment. It can be rebuilding a relationship after trust was shattered. It can be returning to work after foolish choices derailed a career. Restoration is the promise that what is wrong and seems hopeless right now can be made right. It is the evidence that inspires hope.

Grace

July 23, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

I’ve been teaching my older son to drive so I’m confronted by questions of patience and understanding and calmness a lot more these days. My patience and understanding and calmness with my son are pretty easy most of the time. He’s almost never done anything that could have turned dangerous! He’s pretty careful so we wait until the road is really clear before going, and he sees other drivers rushing up and pushing their way in so he slows down to avoid the commotion.

My patience and understanding and calmness are stressed much more by the other drivers. I learned defensive driving decades ago during my driving training and it’s all stored in the corners of my brain, but as I explain it to my son I recognize even more clearly just how wild a lot of drivers are.

Yesterday on the freeway during rush hour a driver came racing up a lane to the left that was going to end in less than 500 feet (the great big yellow sign tells us all that) and whipped in right behind me, immediately tailgating me, and he gave a “thank you” wave to the guy he almost hit when he forced his way between us. A few hundred feet later, he swerved into the right lane and then back into my lane, almost hitting my car as he forced his way into a very small space. He gave me the same “thank you” wave! My response was a hand gesture, too, but it wasn’t friendly and warm.

My son got upset with me. A couple of weeks back we studied the unit on hostility and aggression while driving. “That was a hostile act,” he reminded me. I told him, “The guy wasn’t even looking when he waved so he didn’t see it.” Then I started thinking about it. I wanted him to see it, but not just to get back at him. He seemed totally oblivious to how dangerous his driving was, how anxiety provoking and shocking and offensive. I didn’t want to anger him – I wanted to startle him back to reality. I’m pretty sure he’s still oblivious, even as you read this.

Later on, same trip across Dallas to Plano for soccer practice, I was entering another highway with an entrance ramp that becomes an exit only ramp pretty quickly. I got up to highway speed and signaled, ready to move over before being forced to exit, but a woman driving a mid-size SUV talking on her cell phone was coming up just barely faster than the speed limit. Not fast enough for me to slow down and let her rush past in the short space I had to enter the road. She was alongside me, talking and barely moving ahead, and my lane was ending. I gave about three quick honks on the horn – the “friendly” kind you’re supposed to give before passing a freight truck on a two-lane highway as a signal — and she slowed down just enough for me to move on the highway as the lane started to exit.

I’m warning my son about other drivers as much as possible, with specific examples whenever I see them. It’s not helpful to say, “There are just a bunch of nuts and idiots running around out there.” I say things like, “See that guy who switched lanes quickly and rushed up to tailgate that slow car? He didn’t even notice he was moving into a lane with a slow car just a few yards ahead. He’s going to whip in front of you without paying attention so let off the accelerator a little.” I try to describe as many specific examples of the “agents of chaos” and how to predict which ones are likely to do abrupt and dangerous things.

I want to be specific because otherwise I sound like my grandmother, who used to say, “People are just no d*mn good.” She did attend a Presbyterian church in her younger days, so maybe she was just espousing the doctrine of the total depravity of man due to original sin. But I don’t think so! She tended to expect the worst in people – and she was rarely surprised. She was looking for selfish, rude, mindless, inconsiderate behavior. Jackpot! When I tune my mind that way, I find a bonanza. I think the status quo for most people is running on autopilot and being pretty oblivious to how they affect other people.

Because my grandmother was essentially right that “people are just no d*mn good,” since we are all flawed and make mistakes that are offensive and annoying without even realizing it, we all need an abundance of undeserved favor from each other. We need to give and receive forgiveness easily. We need to see the needs in other people, especially the unspoken ones, and give what we have. We need to listen for the ways we can make an important difference in another person’s life, realizing most of them are pretty easy for us and don’t demand much from us.

We need to carry around buckets of grace to pour out on other people – even, maybe especially, crazy drivers on the highway who cut us off and won’t let us get out of lanes that are about to end. And the women who dial their cell phones and start talking before they put their Suburbans in reverse so they’re trying to back up from a parking space driving with one hand and most of their mind occupied with something else. And the people at check-out counters who ask lots of questions about the items they have, ask employees to bring them more items while we all wait, and make their decisions about buying at the counter instead of before getting in line. And soccer referees – man! That’s a lot of grace.

I’m gonna’ need a bigger bucket. But I realize I know I should give at least as much grace as I need to receive, so I probably ought to carry around plenty to spare.

Grace has its roots in theology, where it means the unmerited kindness and sustenance provided by God to mankind, His forgiveness that we have not earned, and His special intervention to provide help and to bless people. As a human quality, it means I strive to give to others what they truly need because I am able to give. It means, out of deep thankfulness to God for His sustenance, for His blessings, and for His forgiveness, I offer sustenance, blessings, and forgiveness to others who need them. In this way I can become a vessel of God’s daily grace to other people.

Mercy

July 19, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

An online news story today discusses the widely varied sentences for parents who leave their very young children unattended in hot cars, resulting in death. Mothers are punished more severely than fathers, and paid caregivers are more likely to be prosecuted and punished than parents. Only about half the cases are prosecuted, because it is nearly always accidental, but half are seen as victims themselves and the other half as perpetrators by neglect.

Are fathers “excused” more often because they aren’t considered primary caregivers and get a pass when they forget something important—like taking their children out of hot cars? Are mothers pursued more vigorously because they should know better, or because their failures challenge our culturally iconic myth of motherly love?

Are paid caregivers treated more severely because they are paid? Because that pay is pretty low in most circumstances. Are they punished more because the exaggerated outrage helps detract from the truth that parents don’t want to see, that the parent bares some responsibility for placing the child in someone else’s care? By punishing caregivers more severely, are we as a society fabricating a belief that paid caregivers should be held to excessively high standards so parents don’t have to feel responsible for the decisions they make about leaving their children behind?

The story is just a news story, so it can’t really explain the reasons for the differences. But there is an underlying sense of vengeance, not justice, in how the cases are handled so differently. I think that’s because pure justice is equal, but justice applied within a judicial system leaves plenty of room for excuses and exceptions in some cases, and harsh treatment in others.

In a much less heartbreaking example of fiddling with rules, a friend on an internet forum posted recently that her employers at a job she is leaving got in a final “dig” at her as she left. She gave them reasonable notice and continued to work, but the final paycheck included inaccurate deductions and seemingly intentional oversight of actual hours worked and vacation and sick pay accrued. Expecting to be paid in full for her final week, she was getting just a few dollars. The employers were either operating within “the rules” and applying them to their full benefit, or ignoring some rules but assuming the enforcement of the rules would favor them as record keepers.

What is up with us? Why do we fiddle around with fairness and justice, putting some people in a chokehold just because we can and excusing other people’s failures, even when they are fatal?

I think it’s usually for all the wrong reasons. When we can exercise power and stomp down with authority, it’s too easy to conflate our desire for revenge or retaliation with “the law.” When we have the freedom to go easy on a lawbreaker and soften the consequences, it’s easy to use that power to readjust rules we don’t support or apply a warped idea of justice: What he did was bad but he’s so grief-stricken that anything society does to him can’t come close.

Worse, we can delude ourselves into believing we are withholding punishment out of mercy, when in fact we are protecting ourselves from facing an awful truth that’s hard to see. People who worry they might not be capable of the diligent action required by a law might be inclined to let someone else off for violating that law. Going easy on one guy might make it likely others will go easy on them when they mess up.

Mercy, I believe, can only be given freely. The person extending mercy cannot truly be merciful if enforcing the rules or the law would cause him unbearable distress; giving leniency cannot be merciful if it actually makes things easier for the guy in charge. It can’t be mercy if the person granting it dislikes the rule or thinks it’s unfair or harsh—that’s just rewriting the rule one instance at a time.

I think a person has to see the misdeed as wrong to be able to extend mercy. He has to agree that some kind of punishment is a fair and just consequence for the act. He has to be able and willing to mete out the punishment and enforce the consequence. Only when he has that freedom, but chooses to withhold some portion of the consequence, for the ultimate greater benefit of the transgressor, is he truly showing mercy.

Mercy is the triumph of compassion and forgiveness over justice. Mercy draws these values together and attempts to balance them in a way that honors standards but accepts shortcomings. In humility and with empathy, full of hope for restoration, I see another person broken by his own mistakes and, with faith in his desire to change himself and repair the damage he has done, I set aside justice and offer comfort and assistance. Mercy is my response to a genuine need for help and healing.

Forgiveness

July 10, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

I come from a family of people who don’t apologize very often—some never. It’s not because they’re without flaws. I know that because a lot of people in the family were good at pointing out the flaws of the other people. But none of us were very good at seeing and admitting flaws in ourselves. If one person said he’d been mistreated by another person, the “accused” would make excuses, deny there was any wrongdoing, or point to the “accuser’s” history to show that, by comparison, the alleged misdeed was not much to complain about.

I also come from a broader background, in school mostly, where apologies had to be sincere enough to be accepted. If Jimmy hit Johnny, Jimmy had to say “sorry” without rolling his eyes or groaning or the teacher would make him try again. If Johnny didn’t believe Jimmy was really “sorry,” he would say so and not accept the apology.

As I reached adulthood and was working in the family child care center, then also in schools and a residential treatment center, I tried to explain to children why they were expected to apologize for wrongdoing. I told them it was acknowledging that you had done something wrong that hurt or offended another person. I told them it showed that you felt empathy for the pain you had caused to another person. I told them it showed you regretted what you did and wished you hadn’t done it. I even told them it meant you intended not to do that thing again!

As you can tell, I was naive. The best an apology can mean is: I realize I caused hurt, and I know I shouldn’t have done what I did. It doesn’t always mean I wish I hadn’t done it, and it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t do it again! An honest apology would probably sound something like, “I’m sorry I ________ you. I’ll probably regret it later, but right now it still seems kinda like you deserved it. I’d be mad if someone did that to me so I know it was probably wrong. I can’t guarantee I won’t do it again. In fact, change takes time so I’ll probably act that way a lot.”

As I learned later, I was conflating forgiveness with restoration. Apologies don’t have to be “good enough” for someone to forgive. In fact, you can forgive without ever getting an apology. Apologies help in the process of forgiving, and sincere apologies can help with restoration. But apologies don’t have to precede forgiveness. Forgiveness is not earned and it is not bestowed.

I’m in favor of a different sort of message now. Forgiveness is good for the forgiver. Failing to forgive leads to ongoing hurt and resentment in the non-forgiver. We all need to forgive at least as much as we need to receive forgiveness from other people.

You can forgive and still have requirements for restoration. You can forgive and still need a lot of time to heal. But for your own sake you need to forgive as soon as you feel able.

Forgiveness is acknowledging the hurt and pain caused by someone’s offense, and at the same time letting go of the claim on revenge or punishment, or even restitution. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, but it does mean letting go of the past. Forgiveness frees the forgiver to move forward by letting go of the demand the transgressor must satisfy justice. It means letting go of anger and the desire to hurt in return. Forgiveness ends the conflict and opens the door for restoration, but it does not guarantee restoration. A person deeply hurt may require changes in a relationship in order to be willing to continue it. The transgressor may or may not agree. A person can forgive but choose not to continue a relationship. Even without restoration of a relationship, forgiveness is the way to let go of past hurt and move forward. It frees the forgiver as much as it frees the forgiven.

Compassion

June 10, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

I think my give a d@%#’s busted! I get mad just trying to write about this topic. I already erased three paragraphs because I was off on a rant against parents who pamper their children and protect them from responsibility—and even from normal disappointment of not getting everything they want! I was going to compare enabling and caretaking and pampering spoiled weak people with true compassion, but I got WAY off subject.

The voice that’s yelling from the back of my head is saying that lots of people don’t know what compassion is, at least not true compassion, so it gets displaced by all these counterfeits.

Worrying about a teenage young man (nearly adult) getting his feelings hurt because he hears people talking about being frustrated that he and his teammates didn’t put out much effort in a tournament—that’s not compassion. That’s pampering. When parents pay thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of their time to give their sons the opportunity to play a sport at a highly competitive level, it’s right to expect them to perform. It’s necessary. The message otherwise is destructive—we’ll put out the effort, we’ll pay a lot, we’ll prioritize our time, but you aren’t expected to commit or stick with it if it feels too hard.

Complaining to a concession stand worker that your young child doesn’t like hot dogs or popcorn, so why don’t they have chicken nuggets or something your child will eat, is not compassionate to your child. It’s ridiculous. It says the whole world—even the junk food world of concession stands—has to change to accommodate your child’s mercurial tastes.

The father who picked up his two-year-old son and put him on his shoulders and then encouraged his six-year-old son to join him racing his four-year-old daughter to the car—he was not compassionate. In fact, when he taunted the little girl because he (a grown adult man in case I didn’t make that clear) and the older boy won, she started crying. The moron’s response? He talked to her and the older boy the way middle school boys tease each other during competitions. She was devastated.

Maybe I should automatically feel compassion for the moron. Maybe I should see how broken he must be to need to beat his own four-year-old daughter at a race and then TAUNT her to get the sense that his equipment really is male.

Maybe I should feel compassion for the mother who is overwrought that her nearly adult son will feel the weight of other people’s expectations. Maybe I should see that she’s probably pampering and babying him because harsh expectations caused her a lot of pain. It’s not for certain, but it’s likely, and it’s certainly more compassionate than what I start out thinking.

Maybe I should feel how burdensome it is to be the mother of a preschooler who won’t eat hot dogs, won’t eat popcorn, won’t eat who-knows-what-else, but still feels desperate to rush around and find some specific junk food to feed the not-starving child.

Nah. That would be like feeling sorry for the man who had to clean his own house because he got his knickers in a knot and fired the cleaning service while his wife was away visiting family.

Compassion is concern about the welfare of others and includes empathy, the ability to have other people’s feelings resonate in your own heart. It is expressed not in caretaking, but in helping others learn to take care of themselves. It is doing for them only what they cannot do for themselves while expecting them to do what they can do and to learn what they don’t yet know. Burdens are lightened and lifted when shared, but joy shared becomes joy overflowing.

Humility

May 28, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

It’s taken me a long time to get this post written. First, it’s a stretch for someone like me to talk about humility. Second, I like to use a story as an example of the need for these qualities of character. In this case, I have way too many examples of my shortcomings!

When the road is open in front of me and a car waits until I get close before pulling out right in front of me, going about half the speed limit, I don’t see a valuable human being. I see a moron!

When I sit on a committee meeting—any committee, any topic—and the discussion collapses to the details of decorations or which font to put on a report or letter, my connectedness to humankind vanishes.

When I hear intense political arguments that turn into name-calling matches—where one side says any woman who wants to abort her baby is evil, and the other side says anyone who would stop a woman from her right to control her own body is evil—I don’t WANT to be connected to such hateful people.

When I go to the newly constructed “downtown” part of our formerly rural town which is trying to grow into an exclusive suburban community, and see people on cell phones hardly slowing at stop signs and not even looking as they roll right through, oblivious to the people around them slamming on breaks and jumping out of the way… well, I think you get the picture. Self-absorbed arrogance and false superiority really chap my @$$ (hide).

I mean, for someone to think he (or a lot of times she in our upscale little suburb) is superior to others because of the town he lives in is childish nonsense. To think she is better than all the other people who LIVE IN THAT SAME SNOBBY SUBURB is outrageous! They ALL drive cars that cost more than my first house! I don’t have the capacity to see the common humanity of people who act like that when I’m in the middle of the experience. Even with time and distance it’s hard to find compassion and empathy for such a person.

My grandmother was fond of saying, “People are just no damned good.” I thought for a long time that she was very jaded and very negative in her outlook. As I got older, I even thought maybe it was just her way of expressing the Presbyterian theological position of the total depravity of man—corruption is complete and taints every corner of the flesh and soul.

In spite of her criticisms of other people and her sharp-witted quips to her family, she was very loving and caring. I finally realized that people probably disappointed her a lot. But in order to be disappointed so often, she had to have some level of belief in the ability of people to do good and some hope that she would see it. Maybe she was an optimist after all! I want to see the valuable person hidden inside a lot of people, but sometimes it’s just too hard.

Number 1 on Kent Keith’s Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership is:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered; love them anyway.

I guess that especially applies to annoying, egotistical, colonialist, snobby #($@&#&%@s!

Humility is an acceptance that I am human, like all other people, with flaws and shortcoming. It is rooted in the belief in the dignity, or inherent worth, of all human beings. For me this derives from my belief that mankind is created in the Imago Dei, the image of God. Humility is the path to compassion and accepting the shortcomings of others. It also allows me to see that the poor have as much dignity as the wealthy, that the frail have as much dignity as the strong, and that the vulnerable have as much dignity as the powerful. Humility reminds me that the person cleaning the restroom is as worthy as the person who can change my life by approving my contract.

Justice

March 8, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

So then how many does it take?

Justice can be a tricky thing. Balancing the rights and privileges of one person against those of another usually means something has to give and somebody, or both somebodys, give up their rights.

A teenager likes to play loud music in his car—freedom—but the neighbors need to sleep when it’s past midnight, so a city ordinance limits the teen’s freedom.

A homeowner wants to put up a satellite dish but the homeowners’ association, established to protect property values by regulating the appearance of the neighborhood, limits where it can be placed. The homeowner can’t get reception on the dish in the place he’s allowed to put it. The homeowner gives up the freedom to have satellite television to live in the neighborhood.

Most political debates have to do with justice. The children of middle class families are covered by their parents’ health insurance. The children of poor families aren’t. Should those children be at greater risk with their health because of their parents’ financial condition? Should the poor parents be obligated to pay something towards their care? Is society obligated to provide what the parents can’t or won’t? What is just?

A government with a lot of social programs is expensive, so it requires a lot of taxes and fees to pay for it. An average income family of four earns a little over forty thousand dollars per year in the U.S. If they had to pay just ten percent as taxes, that would be four thousand dollars per year, or a little over three hundred per month. Some people think that’s unfair, since paying the basic bills takes most of the family’s income, so they have shifted taxes to higher-earning families.

The average income family doesn’t pay four thousand dollars a year in taxes. They pay maybe fifteen hundred dollars. The family earning one hundred thousand dollars doesn’t pay ten percent, either. They pay more, closer to twenty percent, around twenty thousand dollars.

“They earn more so they can afford it,” is one view of justice. “Everyone benefits so everyone should pay his fair share,” is another view. Justice is hard, because it has to balance competing needs and rights.

One of the biggest hot-button issues in politics in the U.S. right now is immigration reform. It is contentious because of the different views of justice. For years people have entered the country without permission or have stayed past their visas. We now have millions living here in violation of the law. Employers wanted cheaper labor and sellers wanted more consumers, so enforcement was lax. The “two wrongs make a right” view said that if immigration rules were too strict, a reasonable fix was ignoring the rules.

The illogic continues. Now people advocate for granting legal status to people here illegally as a solution—kind of an Alice in Wonderland worldview. Too many people here illegally? Let’s fix it! Declare them legal.

Some even advocate for giving a path to citizenship to those here illegally, while those who are following the rules wait for years. Will all those wrongs make a right? No, they will just make a mess.

But throwing out immigrants here illegally will disrupt lives and tear apart families. The majority living here and working here peacefully are contributing to society, probably at least as much as the resources they are using up. Is it just to evict them? No, but it’s not just to ignore them or give them a pass.

A more reasonable and just approach would be to take the time to find them and begin to keep track of them, giving them a way to stay and work for a prolonged period of time. It may even be just to give them the opportunity to get in line waiting for citizenship, as long as it’s at the back of the line.

“They’re here so they get to be citizens” is simplistic and ignores too much information. “They’re here illegally so they should be punished and thrown out” is also simplistic. The answers to political dilemmas aren’t easy because justice is demanding.

They come from countries with less political freedom, so there is little justice for them there.

They come from countries with limited economic opportunity, mostly at the mercy of wealthy and powerful people, so there is little justice for them there.

They come from countries with police and courts that are harsh, corrupt, and biased, so there is little justice for them there.

But the countries of the world do not want the U.S.. to impose our values and our way of life on them, so we can only offer their citizens justice once they are inside our borders.

So, no, the answer is not easy at all.

Justice is fairness, equality, and a passion for righteousness. Justice demands that rules be reasonable and have a real purpose, and that arbitrary rules be dismissed. It also demands that all reasonable rules be enforced. Justice calls me to defend the vulnerable and the overlooked. It calls me to stand up to the oppressor, the tyrant, or the usurper. It calls me to have courage and confront the lawbreaker when he is causing harm, and to speak up even at the risk of offending other people.

Honesty

February 28, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger. I posted the first few pieces of this series on character on the hosted version of that blog, but I never finished migrating all of it. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I will continue posting the rest of Steve’s Not Nice, including this series, until it’s all here.

When I was pretty young, probably around 4 or 5, we lived in a neighborhood full of young families on the first rung of the middle class ladder. Most of my friends were typical kids, decent most of the time, jerks when stressed out, but able to move back from jerk to decent if a mom showed up. Jerk smoldered a little but decent prevailed, so it was pretty clear that decent was genuine and jerk was reactive.

There were, of course, a couple of exceptions. I think they lived on the next block over, where our babysitter lived. Maybe I just like to think it. She was an older teenager. She taught us that “Strawberry Fields” by the Beatles would tell you, “I buried Paul,” if you played it backwards. It freaked me out hearing that! She also told us Coke would eat up your stomach and tried to demonstrate with a piece of bacon. Nothing happened. She introduced us to stories of séances and ghosts, and I swear she could have written for “The Twilight Zone.”

A couple of kids that had to come from the same block would play on our street once in a while. They were older, almost teens. They taught us to go up to someone and say, “Your epidermis is showing!” It was a great practical joke because the person would look confused, then worried, and then a little freaked out. When you explained it you got a great laugh.

But these older kids were jerks. Not reactive jerks – genuinely jerks. They pulled the trick on a little girl they knew and brought with them across the block border. I think she was a sister or a cousin. They got that cocky look on their faces and said, “Watch this.” Then they called her over and told her, “Your epidermis is showing,” and laughed that jerky whole body life that said they thought they were the coolest things around.

She started to cry. Deeply fearful cries. I was mortified! I tried to explain to her it was only her skin, but she looked wounded and withdrawn and wouldn’t stop crying. Someone appeared and took her home.

Another time the jerks pulled the “Watch this” routine and told the little girl they were going to call the police on her for something little, like calling somebody a rude name. She argued briefly, but they insisted they would do it, the police would come, and they would take her off to jail. She crumbled that time, too, and the “someone” who showed up to take the girl home demanded the jerks go with her, too.

Looking back I see how cruelty hurts. Cruelty doesn’t care about truth or facts. It uses whichever will cause damage. They hurt her with an outrageous lie, but they also hurt her with the truth. Her epidermis was, in fact, showing.

Truth is a very powerful thing. In counseling and in coaching, it is a tool and a goal. Being forthright, clear, and direct are practices that help clients move forward. The problem is, even people who want to learn about themselves and move forward can be devastated by the truth, so it has to be balanced by empathy and respect and acknowledgements of the client’s strength and abilities.

And the hardest lesson of all about honesty: you can be empathetic, you can acknowledge strengths and abilities, you can speak gently and slowly and give information in little pieces, and it can still devastate someone. People who don’t want to know themselves, who are broken or fearful and need to build a lie and climb inside it to feel safe, can despise honesty. It is poison to them because it will bring down the world they fabricated to feel safe, competent, worthwhile, likeable, or whatever quality they can’t find in themselves or their lives – even though it’s probably there.

That hostility towards truth can be insurmountable in a professional counseling or coaching relationship. In personal relationships it’s impossible to have anything but a limited and shallow interaction with such a person, and hardly worth the effort.

Honesty is a bold commitment to truth. It does not waiver when challenged because it flows from the heart. Honesty does not hurt for the sake of hurting, but it does not hide to protect others. People can be hurt and disrupted when they see themselves and their behavior in the light of honesty, so it is a powerful tool that must be respected. Honesty means speaking the truth, but doing so in love and with compassion to help another person receive truth. Only through honesty can a person be truly known by others, and only through honesty can people experience genuine relationships with each other.

Personal Power

February 15, 2013

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

This is The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, widely recognized because it is used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step recovery programs as an encouraging and guiding principle.

Actually, it’s just the first part of The Serenity Prayer. Most people probably don’t even know there’s a second part. I imagine it’s because the first part easily speaks to people of many faiths, and the philosophy can even be applied by people of no faith. The second part isn’t as universally accessible because it’s specifically Christian.

The point of The Serenity Prayer is to understand personal power and use it effectively. Personal power is about your ability to direct and influence yourself, your environment, and other people (in a respectful and open way).

Personal power includes your ability to exercise your executive function. That’s an aspect of your mind that allows you to take in information from the world around you, evaluate it, make decisions, and make them happen.

Personal power also includes your ability for self-regulation. This means being aware of your drives, emotions, and urges, and understanding what purpose they serve. It means using them as messages signaling to you what’s going on with your body and your mind so you can mindfully consider what they’re saying and what you’re going to do about them. It means choosing and acting with intention instead of being directed by them or even pushed around by them.

Personal power includes social intelligence. That is your ability to understand other people through your empathy so you can see life from their point of view. It is your ability to understand how their drives, emotions, and urges are influencing them. It is your ability to understand that people have different beliefs and values so you take the time to learn about a person before making inaccurate assumptions.

Personal power includes the ability to delay gratification. That means you can compare the value of a near-term gain with the value of a long-term gain and compare the cost of a near-term sacrifice with a long-term gain. Delaying gratification is saving money over time to be able to make a down payment on a house, getting the long-term gain, instead of spending the money right away for a short-term gain. It’s also giving up free time and taking on a challenging goal, like finishing a degree, which involves near-term sacrifice, for the long-term gain of more opportunities.

Personal power includes the very courage that is requested in the prayer. It involves developing your abilities and continuing to push yourself outside your comfort zone so you learn new things and become more capable. It involves learning new skills and taking on new challenges so you can experience more things, understand more things, and master more things.

Personal power means being clear about your strengths and talents and developing them, because you understand the things you will do best are the ones that rely on your strengths and talents. It means being clear about your values, knowing what you value and why, so you can make choices that align with them.

You develop your personal power through self-exploration, self-discovery, self-development, and self-expression. When you do that, your core self becomes your guiding compass and your internal source of energy.

That means people who have personal power are core driven.

Isn’t it beautiful how these two qualities come together? I love it!

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