Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Apathy - Revisited

It’s odd how some thoughts can pop into my head that, in a split-second, appear just as insane as they really are. That I recognize them as such as quickly as I do speaks volumes about how my view of the world has changed, but it also speaks to the vision I had of the world for many years. I have referred to my generation as the “age of apathy” in the past. Although I realize this is a gross generalization, like most generalizations there is an element of truth in it. I came of age in the late 70s; a decade that could be characterized in a number of ways, but one that I remember most profoundly is that there was no real drive. There were some major events that came to a degree of resolution – the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, Watergate and other forms of civil unrest seemed to come to some sort of closure towards the end of the 70s. And then things got pretty good pretty fast in the 80s. A sense of entitlement settled in and the work ethic that had already begun to take a beating in the 60s was dying a slow death. Generalizations, yes, but the sense of apathy from those days is real.

At least it was for many in my generation. Although much was left to fight for or against, no one felt much like fighting anymore. It was a time of harvest and some, like myself, who were to entering adulthood and the workforce had no sense of priority. It’s not that the previous generation did not show us the way, but to a certain extent that age-old idea that parents want their kids to have a better life than they did was perceived by many as a sense of entitlement to the good life. Tom Wolfe described the 70s as the “me decade” and for this product of that period, it certainly proved to be so. Although this attitude inflicted many, many of them eventually grew out of it. I, however, profoundly confused the good life with the easy life and worked harder at avoiding the necessary work to attain it than the work to attain it would have been. So when the thought that I can just say, “screw it” to my work pops into my head, the insanity of where that will lead me is readily apparent. The good life is not easy – it isn’t supposed to be.

I wrote the following essay for Prosper Magazine back in 2006. It is almost four years old, but it still applies…

The Apathetic Revolution

“I'd love to change the world - but I don't know what to do,
So I'll leave it up to you.”

These lyrics from the 1971 hit by Alvin Lee and Ten Years After turned out to be prophetic indeed. It was the beginning of a time in this country’s history when so much would be redefined. The political and socio-economic fabric of a nation had been unraveled and rewoven, catching many by surprise and leaving others by the wayside. The decompression following the 60s became the time of the hunter, the hunted and the silent.

The uber-morality of the 60s, with the civil rights and equal rights movements… even the peace marches which finally brought an end to the Vietnam War was replaced with a paradigm shift toward the “self-center.” The “good fight” had been won and it was time to regroup, relax and reflect. We fell back into our collective cocoons - and stayed there. Tom Wolfe’s “me decade” of theb 70s became the “me generation;” a status quo that has endured for more than 30 years.

Perhaps it was the ultimate success of these popular uprisings that harkened the coming of the “apathetic revolution” - its battle cry, “It’s none of my business!” We stopped noticing things. Life was comfortable, at least for the silent majority. We wanted to trust our leaders in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Nixon got us out of Vietnam, made nice with China and nearly got away with Watergate. Had it not been for two nosey reporters… well, no one else paid much attention.

The problem is not that we didn’t learn; some did - too well. Business at every level began to play “follow the leadership.” They added qualifiers, justifiers and rationalizers to redefine that which is right and wrong. The age-old robber-baron practices of days gone by were dressed in new garb only to become the savings and loan debacle turned Enron scandal. Even the recent shenanigans of the likes of Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham went unchecked until he finally tripped over his own greed.

Standard operating procedure is now based on risk assessment. Dirty dealing is nothing of the sort if no one finds out – or if can be lobbied and legislated into law. Morality has become a game of chance; not black or white, but rather shades of risk. It’s ok if the consequences are personally inconsequential. In the quest to obtain wealth and power, anything goes and everyone is fair game. Lawyers continue to argue the letter of the law, never minding its spirit.

Today, news of corruption is virtually a daily occurrence. We’re barely moved when an elected official, civic leader, businessman or even a clergy member gets caught with his or her pants down. Only recently has the punishment begun to fit the white-collar crime. And only then when the sheer magnitude of the offense elicits an outcry. For the vast majority, the risk has proven worth taking.

It’s time to wake up. Our political and business leaders need to know that we, the people, expect them to take the moral high road - and that we are watching. The idealistic visions of utopia of the 60’s have yielded to the all too real apathetic myopia of Lee’s lyrics 35 years later– “So I’ll leave it up to you.”

Who? In his 1961 Inaugural Address, President John F. Kennedy answers: “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.”

I believe he was talking to you.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Will of the People

There have been a couple of recent events that are, although seemingly unrelated, both centered upon the sort of government we operate under and the inconsistent views (often based in misunderstanding and misinterpretation) some hold our form of democracy to be. First, we are not a pure democracy, but rather a representative democracy - entirely at the federal level and mostly at the state and local levels as well. We elect representatives who then make our decisions for us. It is impractical, probably impossible, for a nation of this size to make every decision via a popular vote. We elect those who we feel best represent our views and (ideally) entrust them to carry out the action we elected them to carry out. It is still the will of the people, but in a more manageable (again, ideally) form. Our views are communicated to our representatives in a number of ways, and the First Amendment guarantees our ability to do so… and then there is the ballot box.

But in some states a form of direct democracy exists. In California we have the initiative, the referendum and the recall. These are vehicles that allow the people to directly dictate law and public policy. But there is a catch: the laws must still adhere to both the state and federal constitutions. And constitutionality is determined not by the executive or legislative branches of government, but by an independent judiciary. It is part of the system of checks and balances that our founders so cleverly set in place to keep the majority from oppressing minority views, groups and positions. If the majority were to exercise its will by a simple vote, then all sorts of civil liberties that we take for granted might never have come to be. Indeed, if the will of the majority were always allowed to prevail, we would be living in a much different country than we do today.

Those two events? The overturning of California’s Proposition 8 and the proposed construction of a mosque near the site of the massacre at the World Trade Center. The word “massacre” was chosen carefully, it represents the depravity of those who perpetrated it and the senseless loss of so many innocent lives. I want to be clear that my stance regarding those who planned and executed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is nothing short of disgust. But what could a planned mosque near the site and Prop. 8 possibly have to do with one another? Both hinge on the constitution. The United States Constitution guarantees, above all else, freedom - freedom for all and freedom from oppression. It is not a perfect system, but over time it has proven to prevail even when majority opinion would have us do otherwise. In the case of the mosque, the gut reaction is to penalize an entire religion for the acts of a few extremists operating under its name. All groups have extremists and some perpetrate heinous crimes, but to oppress the entire lot is not only unconstitutional, it is anti-American. I know this is an unpopular position when it comes to Islam, but it is true nonetheless. The proposed mosque near Ground Zero is a bad idea, unwise and even insensitive, but it cannot and should not be determined by the masses simply because it is the majority view.

California’s Prop. 8 is another even more clear-cut case of the majority limiting the rights of a singled-out minority. This time it happens to be the gay community, but it could just as easily be women, an ethnic group or lefties. And whether the court is correct in ruling against the proposition is not the point; the court is performing its role as an independent check on the majority’s right to impose its will on a minority. The case will now proceed to the US Supreme Court where the ultimate adjudication will take place – hopefully. It is quite possible that the court will side step the controversy by making a very narrow ruling that will not settle the matter. Regardless, the will of the people in this “democracy” is not now nor has it ever been the final word. Our founders were wise beyond the world as they knew it; they were acutely aware that tyranny could come from the masses just as easily as it can from an autocracy. These two issues demonstrate that our system of checks and balances is not designed to quench the thirst of the majority, but to protect the rights of all – even if exercising those rights violates common sensitivity or the majority's idea of morality. It might not be a perfect system, but so far it has mitigated a host of injustices ranging from women’s suffrage to civil rights to the rights of the disabled. The lesson here is to be careful which causes are championed under the guise of “the will of the people.” Next time the minority might include you.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

2,190 Days

Six years ago, my life was a wreck. There was little to look forward to, I had burned much of what was good in my life to the ground. It didn’t happen overnight, but over the course of too many years my world gradually spiraled out of control. I was at the end of the line, some things were going to happen… and then I had some decisions to make. Without really knowing it, I finally quit fighting. I had no other choice. I gave up my idea that I was some kind of exception; that I could live life on my own terms; that the universal rules that apply to everyone somehow did not apply to me. I could no longer allow my ego to keep my on a crash course that had already nearly killed me and now was making living more unbearable that death. If I had it in me, suicide would have been a viable option, but that took more courage than I had.

I don’t reveal much here regarding the specifics that led me to this defining moment in time, but it doesn’t take much to read between the lines. My story is not unique and those familiar with this particular form of desperation know exactly what it is like. Nothing was working out, if it wasn’t for bad luck, as the song goes, I would have had no luck at all. Failure time and time again was a living place for me – and I couldn’t understand why it was always happening to me. Of course, I placed the root cause of it all outside myself. I had to, if it was my own doing then I could only conclude that I was wrong – and I was never wrong.

But I was seriously deluded. It’s not that I was evil (though I had myself believing that sometimes) or that I ever intended any harm to others or myself, but my entire outlook was so self-centered that I was incapable of seeing outside the box I had created. It took being broken down – beaten by the same system that I spent so long fighting so hard against. I had to surrender – which is not the same as giving up or admitting defeat necessarily – it meant that I had to just stop. Stop fighting. The battle I was waging, as it turned out, was against myself and I could not win. Ever.

Although the turn-around started almost ten years ago after a near-fatal auto wreck, that was only the beginning of the end. The final round took place on August 6th, 2004. I didn’t think there was anything significant about that day – in fact, it was worse than normal and normal at the time was pretty bad. The next many days were not much better, but I was in a situation in which my physical needs were met and I had little to do but rest and reflect. It was not a pretty picture, but very slowly the days started to get a little better and over a period of about six months, my anger subsided significantly. And more importantly, my whole outlook on the world and my place in it gradually shifted – it was a huge shift in perspective, but at the time it happened so slowly I didn’t even notice.

I was not in every respect an irresponsible man, but in many I was. I was not responsible for my own feelings and in large part that dictated my actions, which, by extension, were also not my responsibility. As my attitude became more rational and my outlook changed, so did my fortune. But it is not nor was it an action/reaction, punishment/reward paradigm… I was looking for some peace between my ears and the only way to achieve it was to take a good hard long look at how I viewed things. As much as my lot in life has measurably improved, many things are no different now than they ever were. Where my reaction to those things was often met with defiance, anger and rage, it no longer is. Things that used to turn my world upside-down no longer faze me – I just watch them pass on by.

There are so many people who were and still are instrumental in this process. There are those such as my parents, my kids and other family members who were witness to the worst of times and never gave up on me, loving me unconditionally through it all. There were the nameless and faceless who, through the course of their lives intersected mine and systematically prodded me along the way. Then there is my current core group of friends, colleagues and professors (not exclusively - some fill all three roles) who believed in me even when I did not. I could not have done it alone, but no one could do it for me.

In the past six years my life has evolved from one that was barely tolerable to one in which I look forward to every new day. At almost 48 years old, I am more content, more serene and more valuable – both to others and myself - than I have ever been. I embrace every new challenge life brings and meet them head-on despite the presence of the same fears that used to paralyze me motionless in place, often for years at a time. Things that I would not attempt for fear of failure are no longer roadblocks in my life – and that does not mean I always succeed – but I never shy away from trying. I get the satisfaction of not only trying my best, but more often than not that satisfaction is sweetened by having succeeded.

At six years into this journey, I have only just begun. The tunnel’s end is too far away to have any idea what waits there, but the light shines brighter than it ever has before and it grows steadily brighter with each passing day. It took an unimaginable amount of personal (and self-inflicted) suffering to arrive at this point, but I wouldn’t trade any of it knowing what I know now. Regrets? Sure, I have many. I wish that I had not hurt the people who loved me most along the way, but I am graced with six years so far, and hopefully many more, to make it up to them. Some day I’ll recount the story in all it’s unedited detail, but for today the message is that no matter how dark it gets, there’s always a new day just around the corner. Seize it.