Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mr. Manners

A man's manners are a mirror
in which he shows his portrait.
--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Manners are of more importance than laws... Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.
--Edmund Burke

Love…does not behave rudely.
--St. Paul

Adam is working away in the Garden of Eden when he sees God.

Adam: Lord, I have been waiting to talk to you when Eve wasn’t around. I’d like to ask you some questions about her, if you don’t mind.
God: Sure thing, Adam. Ask away.
Adam: Lord, why did you make her so beautiful?
God: Well…I wanted you to be attracted to her, my son.
Adam: Er, if you don’t mind…could I ask another question?
God: Go ahead.
Adam: Well…why did you make her so soft?
God: That’s easy. So that you would want her.
Adam: Okay. I know I am pushing the envelope here…but could I ask you one more question?
God: Yes. One more.
Adam: Lord, why did you make her so dumb?

God: O that’s the easiest one of all, Adam. I did that so that she would actually want you.

Upscale restaurant. Man and woman all dressed up. It is obviously a Special Evening. Man answers mobile phone and talks for 5 minutes. He is so engrossed in the conversation he doesn’t see that the woman has rolled her eyes repeatedly and sighed so loudly that I heard her…and I was at least 20 feet away.

Young lady works at getting her luggage in one of the overhead bins of the airplane. The suitcase appears to weigh more than she does. Man looks at her, and goes back to reading his magazine.

Where have our manners gone, men?

If you are familiar with Arthurian legends you will remember that one of the chief codes of conduct for a knight was chivalry. I was rereading Malory’s Morte d’Arthur the other day where I ran across a perfect description of chivalrous behavior. Sir Ector is describing Lancelot, who has just died, as “a man meek in the hall with women and as the sternest of knights in battle.” He was both humble and fierce—and he knew when to be which. Blending and integrating strength and honor, a warrior’s spirit with humility, was the code that governed the knight’s behavior on the battlefield and “in the hall with women.”

Yes, I know that militant feminism (these are those women where you can’t tell whether she is a damsel in distress or a dragon ready to belch fire) has left many of us men a tad anxious when it comes to how to behave around women: especially women whom we do not know that well. Nevertheless, even in these cases, a gracious and respectful offer of help or service will rarely be met with scorn, even if it is not accepted. Besides, since when is doing-right or behaving-appropriately predicated on the response of others?

The challenge today is that so many men are ignorant as to chivalrous behavior. Okay. Most men have not even heard of the word, much less considered the concept. The same goes for their fathers, which is where the problem began. But I believe it is an important component of what it means to be a man…what it means to be a gentleman.

Business dinner. Mr. Manager introduces new-hire: “This little girl is going to be a great addition to our team.” She is 30 years old, MBA grad and already has an astounding reputation as a numbers cruncher. She is demonstrably not a little girl.

Husband speaking to wife: “No honey, you can’t drive down to the beach.” (Patting her on the head) “I just think it’s too dangerous for you.” She is 37 years old. It is a 90- minute drive. This isn’t Africa.

Condescension masked as manners.

When St Paul referred to women as the Weaker Sex, he wasn’t saying women were the dumber sex, less fortunate sex, incompetent sex, or less valuable sex. The fact is, in some contexts, some of these things Could Be Said about the men women must deal with. Treating a grown woman as if she were a child, a daughter or a cute-little-ornament is disrespectful. And at the heart of manners is the element of genuine respect.

I am not going to get into a How To or a What If here. My intention is merely to provoke some thought on the subject of demonstrating respect for women in our behavior, words and attitudes. If you want a witty and comprehensive discourse on manners, go read, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated.

Come on guys: when you want to relive the Days of the Neanderthal, go camping with your buddies or hang out at a fraternity party. When you are around women, get a grip. Be a gentleman. Act honorably and appropriately. Even if you are uncertain as to what constitutes good manners in a particular context, being respectful, gracious and genuinely solicitous of a person’s wellbeing covers a multitude of social faux pas. As Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dealing With Africa's Debt

(This article was written June 14, 2005)

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.
Give a man a fishing net and he will eat for a lifetime…
but only if he is willing to work.

Probably because of all my work with charities and relief organizations, I have been receiving loads of email letting me know “how thrilled I am that the G-8 is going to begin forgiving the debts of many African nations.” I can only assume these same people would not be so thrilled to discover that I am not all that sure this is a great idea. It’s not that I do not believe nations like Chad, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Guinea need help: I simply am not all that certain this is the “help” they need.

Here in the US, Congress has made it increasingly difficult for people to walk away from their debts via bankruptcy. Evidently, when people discover that they can stiff Bank of America and Sears, reneging on their debt with impunity, they are prone to doing just that. So how is it that a murdering thug like Mugabe (Zimbabwe’s present tyrant) will now be able to do what is no longer thought ethical or legal for US citizens?

I know there is not a one-to-one correlation here, but inquiring minds of debt-encumbered US citizens sure would like to know how come we are going to wipe out the debts of nations (debt that was financed via taking money away from citizens to give to these nations) but not do the same for it’s citizens?

“Well, because you citizens should have known better than to live above your means." And Ethiopia is too ignorant to have known better?

"Because it is now simply impossible for these people to even survive under this massive load of debt." And I am doing just peachy?

"Because we do not want to encourage irresponsible debt by American citizens." But we do want to encourage this behavior in Chad?

Chad is on the top five list of Most Corrupt African Governments. (Citizens of Chad: “We’re Number Four!”) Was it unable to pay its debts because of a) famine and pestilence; or b) because of dummying the books to cover up kick backs by government officials? (Hint: it is not “a.”)

Blair and Bush tell the world that the release of debts will be wedded together with requiring good governing practices. So, what many of these nations that will be celebrating Christmas early this year have refused to do for decades (accurate and transparent bookkeeping, sound fiscal policies, etc.) they will now be delighted to do? Does anyone actually believe this?

Will the leaders of G-8 actually have the political will to hold African nations accountable for how they spend the money saved by cancellation of debt and the reception of on-going aid?

President Mugabe has exterminated many of Zimbabwe’s most productive farmers because they happen to be white. Just last week he destroyed the homes of over 100.000 of the nation’s poorest people because he wanted to chase them out of the city where they were living. Seems he is a tad worried they may not be all that happy with what has happened to the nation and may begin taking to the streets to demand new leadership.

Are we really going to come to the aid of a tyrant who single handedly destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy? Can’t we at least tell Zimbabwe’s political leaders, “When your murdering thug of a President is no longer in a position of power, give us a call”? Of course, if Mugabe was white and he was killing black farmers, we would have already convened the Security Council at the UN and Bush and Blair would be talking about possible military action.

Ethiopia’s President is whacking peaceful protesters who believe his most recent reelection was rigged. I have yet to hear the member nations of G-8 say, “Stop suppressing freedom of speech and murdering dissenters or you won’t see one dime.”

Again, G-8 and various agencies say that they are going to tie debt cancellation to the requirement that the recipient nations use the money that would have gone to the monthly payment of debts to the building of schools, hospitals, roads and such things. Maybe I am not as deep a thinker as U2’s Bono, but it seems to me that if I cannot pay my debts because I do not have enough money to do so, and those debts are then cancelled, I will not, thereby, have any extra income to do what I promised to do in order to get you to cancel my debts.

I honestly do think Bono has spent considerable time thinking about what to do with the burden of debt that so many African nations are wrestling with. I also think his heart is in the right place. (Although I still endorse the sentiment expressed in the title of Laura Ingraham’s book, “Shut Up and Sing!”) But altruistic motives don’t always translate into real world wisdom.

About ten years ago, Zambia’s then President Chiluba offered thousands of poor families that had poured into the capital city looking for food, two acres of land in the country and enough corn seed to plant so as to begin feeding their families. Hardly anyone took him up on his offer. Why? After decades of a socialistic state that fed them all for free (and, O, by the way, bankrupted the nation’s economy), no one was up for working for their food.

As we here in the US have finally begun to learn through the dismal failures of our welfare state, throwing money at people doesn’t solve problems, it only exacerbates them.

The problem with many of the people in the nation’s we wish to help is not that they do not have the tools or capital with which to farm or build businesses: it is that they all too often do not have the will or motivation to work. Furthermore, it was the wrongheaded policies of the US, Great Britain and other donor nations that helped see to it that this destructive mindset was rewarded.

If we are finally going to inexorably tie our aid to human rights, responsible fiscal policies, and on-going demonstrations of an increasingly productive populace then the cancellation of debt may be a great help to these nations. However—I have yet to see any display of this sort of political will power that would lead me to believe we will actually demand such accountability.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Driving in Africa

Traffic Laws
In Africa, they are non-existent. No one pays attention to traffic signals, stop signs or speed restrictions. They don’t even pay attention to what side of the road to drive on. If they are passing a truck or a cow, be prepared to leave the road, as they consider the entire road to be their-side-of-the-road.

The lanes that are marked on the road serve no practical purpose whatsoever. In some cities where there may be six lanes on your side of the freeway marked with white lines, there will be 8 lanes of cars…or more. Think “bumper cars” at your local Fair Ground’s.

Do not worry about speed limits, as the locals see them as guiding principles, not as laws. Speaking of speed: the roads are…challenging. What they call potholes, we call ditches or ravines. Drive slowly or drive fast: it doesn’t matter, as your suspension is toast either way.

If you do speed or leave the road or cause someone else to leave the road, not to worry: the police are for decorative purposes only. If you do get pulled over, a twenty-dollar bill resolves the misunderstanding. But usually there are no police. Sometimes, however, there are soldiers. They do not want twenty-dollars, they want to demonstrate how much authority they have over you, especially if you are a white guy from the US. Do not mess with these guys because they have Double-O status (as in “007”) and are allowed to shoot you.

Road Blocks
There are three different kinds of roadblocks

1) Police Roadblock. The police wish to have the opportunity to eyeball your car and the people in it, or at least appear as if there is a reason they are being paid the exorbitant salary of one-dollar a day. Do not stop or they will think you want to chat or to be searched. Merely smile, nod your head respectfully, wave, and keep moving.

2) Military Roadblock. Here you will be stopped, as they are looking for terrorists, enemies of the President, or a date for Friday night. They may want to see your passport or AAA driving permit. Be polite, even if they are rude. This is no place to be macho: they have weapons. Although many of these Barney Fife’s have only one bullet that is in their shirt pocket, now is not the time to play Sheriff Taylor. If you get uppity they will search your car, your luggage and places on your body where the sun doesn’t shine.

3) The Fallen Tree Roadblock. This is where you go as fast as possible and run the car around or over the trees trunks and limbs. Do not worry about the oil pan underneath your car: worry about your life. Thieves and marauders man this roadblock.

The general rule of thumb is this: Animals have the right away. Getting around cows is an art. You can sound your horn but they are usually oblivious. If you sound your horn too often, the herder will take his time moving the cows out of the way. If you don’t honk at all, he will think you are cool with sitting there all day. Seeking to navigate around the cow is an iffy enterprise as the cow thinks the car wants to dance and will keep moving with you so as to remain directly in front of you. Goats are a bit more skittish and can be scattered by the touch of a bumper. Note I said a “touch.” Killing or maiming the goat or any other animal results in all the bystanders pelting your car with beer bottles, chickens, and street urchins.

In Case of Accident
Accidents in Africa or any other Developing Nation are horrific. Busses built for 100 people are carrying 200 people. Taxis with seats for 6 people are loaded with 12 people in the car, 2 on the hood, 4 on the trunk, 5 on the roof, 1 holding on to each door, and 10 seeking to jump on the car. Motorcycles are carrying entire villages. You get the picture. Accidents are bloody messes. Furthermore, all drivers in an accident are taken to jail until the police sort it out, which could take days, weeks or months. You don’t get a phone call. If by some stroke of luck you do, whom are you going to call, the American Embassy? Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Surely you jest?

I highly recommend hiring a driver so that, if there is an accident, he goes to jail. If you think that you can’t afford a driver, remember this: the only way to stay out of jail is to carry large amounts of cash with which you will seek to placate the angry mob, as well as the police. Even this may not work. If you opt for the option of carrying cash be certain all US currency was printed after 1999, as no one will accept older bills. No one. Not even the banks.

Driving Etiquette
When approaching stop sign/traffic signal/intersection, sound your horn, make the sign of the cross, and accelerate.

When approaching a roundabout, sound your horn, gesture with hand outside window, sound your horn, and proceed.

When you come upon pedestrians, sound horn, yell at the top of your lungs, and proceed.

When nothing is in your way, sound horn and keep proceeding merrily on your way.

Sounding your horn serves to make you appear as a local, thus gaining rapport with the other drivers, pedestrians and animals on the road.

As I have previously written, driving in Africa is one of the more dangerous things I do there. On the other hand, I grew up learning to drive on I-95 in Miami. It’s not much different.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

So You Wanna Go To Africa

Dr. Reik Machar, Vice-President of Southern Sudan

It’s usually hot: real hot…so hot every pore in your body screams for a mercy killing. But maybe that is just Monte. Some people may find working in a sauna appealing.

Unless you are in Cape Town or some resort in Nairobi or Kampala, things don’t work all that well. Light switches only mean there was once electricity. The menu you are ordering from is only a list of items that sometimes can be prepared…but not for you…not today. The auto you rented will probably break down. (I lucked out last year when it did so as I was driving off of the rental lot.)

If you are a fan of the UN or World Bank or International Monetary Fund…get ready to be disillusioned.

Prepare to wait…and wait. Bring your iPod and plenty of books to read. The pace here is slow. People may wear watches but it’s just for show. “9 o’clock Monday morning” means “sometime today.” Maybe.

Planning and strategizing is something else you can do when you are waiting…as long as you realize that such activity should be seen as, primarily, a mental exercise that has little or no bearing on reality. You must always keep The Goal in view, being prepared at any moment to change your plans, revise your strategy, rethink your tactics. Nothing ever goes as planned here.

Many of the people you meet will see you as a mark. They have a product to sell you: their poverty. They all have stories, all are suffering, and only you can help them…with cash…and the dollars need to have been printed after 2000. Given so many Westerners will instantly respond with a fist full of dollars, you can’t blame them for trying. But the problem is that such misguided generosity often exacerbates their problems, it does not alleviate them. And after a while your battle is not only to be more discerning in your charity, it is also a battle against your own sense of creeping cynicism.

Try as you might—and you should never give up—you will never understand the African culture. Be humble. Keep apologies at the ready. Listen to your African friends. If they say something is a social faux pas, it is usually a good idea to avoid it. If they say to not give money to someone you were about to give to, you probably shouldn’t. If they say, “Don’t go there, it isn’t safe, or right, or acceptable,” then don’t go there. One of my best friends is Derek Hammond. He has lived in Africa all his life. If Derek says Don’t Do That, Monte doesn’t Do That. If, going into Sudan, Derek says, This is How It Works, Monte does not improvise. (I know, this is totally out of character for me, but, hey, I like breathing, and I hate getting sick, so Derek’s words carry a lot of weight.) If you want to be successful in Africa—or any other foreign culture—find yourself a Derek. It saves a lot of heartache, a lot of wasted energy, and a lot of unnecessary trips to the toilet (literally and figuratively).

Prepare to meet some aspects of your personality you hadn’t met before. Being thousands of miles away from home and under some peculiarly stressful situations usually brings out the best and the worst of us. When the “worst” shows up, don’t hide behind excuses such as, “That isn’t me, “ or “I am just tired.” It was you. You did it, you said it: own it, deal with it, and move on.

Don’t sit around waiting for an opportunity to do something great, grand and glorious. Find something good to do and get at it. All you can do is what you can do: God decides the ultimate outcome. (Am I deep or what!) And remember, if you are going to accomplish any good at all you are going to get dirty and you are going to make mistakes. If you aren’t getting dirty and you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t doing any good.

None of this is to suggest you should forget about going to Africa and take your free time and discretionary income and go sip wine in Napa Valley. It is only to remind you that doing good work anywhere—especially in Africa—is rarely fun. It is messy, difficult, hard work that comes with a price.

You either hate Africa or fall in love with it. My first trip to Africa was in the late 80’s where I almost instantly developed a love-hate relationship with it. I love the people, love its exotic beauty, love the infinite possibilities for doing good. I hate the heat, hate the emotional toll that disease, poverty and war takes on me, and I hate what five-decades of the no-strings-attached charity from Donor Nations has done to the African. I also hate that I do not go there more often, and hate that I don’t even do more work there.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Friday, July 6, 2007

Saying No to the Needs of Others

Jesus walks into a room, heals one person among many who are seriously ill, and then walks out. What’s up with that? Didn’t he care for the needs of all?

Jesus chose 12 men to disciple, which means there were quite a few that were not chosen. Did this mean he didn’t love all those who were not chosen for this special relationship? And out of this 12 there was one whom he loved the most: wasn’t he worried about the feelings of the other 11?

Word gets around that Jesus is in town and is casting out demons, healing the sick and doing some pretty cool stuff for people. The crowds show up to his doorstep. Does he get about meeting all the needs of these people? Nope. He turns to his disciples and says, “Let’s skedaddle.” Why? “Because I only say what I hear my Father saying, only do what I see my Father doing.” In other words, obeying his Father wass what mattered most to Jesus, not the needs of others.

Recent Phone Conversation:

Friend: Monte, the other day when you turned down the invite to my party, you really hurt my feelings.
Monte: (Silence)
Friend: I know you were tired from the trip to Africa but it was really important to me that you come. Why wouldn’t you?
Monte: As I told you, I was wiped out from the trip and knew I would be falling asleep on my feet.
Friend: Don’t you think you could have made the sacrifice?
Monte: No. I had very little emotional reserves for such an effort and needed to recoup for some important meetings the next day.
Friend: So those meetings were more important?
Monte: Frankly, yes.
Friend: Well…uhhhh…you really hurt my feelings.
Monte: (Wanting to say, “So your feelings are the standard of evaluation?”) I deeply regret that but it was best for me to stay home and go to bed.

I think one of the most powerful trump cards to use so as to cripple a serious Christian is the charge of being selfish or self-centered…followed closely by being charged with arrogance.

If I hold to my principles and convictions, refusing to sacrifice either, I am selfish or arrogant…or arrogantly selfish. The person demanding I bow before their convictions or needs, however, is virtuous? How so?

Why is it “selfish” (read: sinful) for me to stand up for my values/beliefs/vision, but “selfless” (read: virtuous) when someone denies their values/beliefs/vision? Why is it “selfish” for me to hold to my vision, refusing to swerve one way or the other, but it is virtuous for someone to deny their God-given vision and follow another person’s?

Well, Wilson, Christianity is all about sacrifice.” Really? It is All About Sacrifice? What about obeying God’s call, following after Christ no matter the cost (a cost that includes having people accuse of you being selfish and arrogant!), or being a faithful steward over my gifts/talents/resources: are these not also some pretty important teachings of our Faith?

Is the act of meeting someone’s needs in-and-of-itself a virtue? What if their need is illegitimate? What if meeting their need will bankrupt you? What if meeting their need leaves you incapable of carrying out your mission in life, or at least keeps you from attending to more important needs? What if meeting their need gets in the way of what God is seeking to teach them through that need?

My needs are not a claim on you or your resources. Say this with me: Your-needs-are-not-a-claim-on-me-or-my-resources. His-needs-are-not-a-claim-on-me-or-my-resources. Her-needs-are-not-a-claim-on-me-or-my-resources. Their-needs-are-not-a-claim-on-me-or-my-resources.

Acts of charity are acts of freewill. It is not charity (love) if you are forced at the point of a gun (metaphorically or literally) or coerced through guilt-manipulation to give. (Although it is sometimes wise to submit in such circumstances…but that is a thought for another day.) Resignation to force or to guilt-manipulation is not the same thing as submitting to the laws of love. There are no rewards—no spiritual gold stars, no heavenly pats on the back--for giving in to tyrants or guilt-manipulators.

The needs of others should never be the driving force in our relationships or our decision-making process. Love is what should infuse and inform all that we do: love for God and love for others. Loving God I seek to be and to do all I can for His Love’s sake…and that sometimes demands I pass by certain people and their needs. Loving others, I seek to do what I can for their best…and that sometimes demands I say No, not today, not this time, not now.

copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

What is Me

At least once a month I receive an email asking me why I don’t write about political issues or cutting edge theological issues all that often. “Back in the day you really took it to people.” Usually I send the person my essay on Fire Breathers and never hear from him or her again. This week, however, I received a note where the individual was genuinely concerned that I had lost my “mo-jo,” “gone over to the Dark Side,” given up on “The important battles of the day,” etc.

The issue for me is not only what is Important but, also, what is Important To Me.

Orthodoxy, of course, remains Important…and Important to Me. Other doctrinal battles—however critical they might be—take a back seat.

Such cultural and societal issues as abortion, the war on terror, and the national debt are also Important and Important to Me. The question—for me—is where do I give my energies and resources? I am a finite being with limited resources, gifting, talents and time so I must ask the question: what is Important To Me and, conversely, what is Not Important to Me?

The ongoing debate on Justification by Faith Alone, for example, (understanding that saving Faith is never alone) is Important, but is it a battle I should wage on a Grand Scale? There are plenty of people more qualified than I am to wage this battle, so is it the wisest place for me to spend my resources? This is not to say that I do not stand ready to give an answer for the hope that I have, only that it may or may not be a battle where I as an individual Christian should engage myself.

An example of what is Not Important to Me is being right about everything. Some issues are simply not worth the relational damage, and not worth the factions they cause within the Church. I will argue about issues such as church government or baptism…but only up to a point. As my brother Richard is always saying, “You can be right about everything all the time or you can have friends.” You can’t do both.

Yes, I have changed my emphasis over the last years. The biggest reason for my change is that I saw so many battles being lost because the individuals waging the battle were clueless: clueless about the fact that they were unnecessarily alienating people, clueless that they were their own worst enemy, clueless as to what they were actually communicating. So, my time and energy have gradually gone to writing and speaking about character, congruency, and communication.

If the man or woman fighting for what is Important is not spiritually, psychologically, or intellectually equipped for the battle, he or she will not only risking their own health, but also will potentially bring disrepute to the cause they are fighting for. This is what is Important to Me.
  • What is it that your life is communicating?
  • What is it that people are Hearing you say? Not what do you Intend to say, but what are people actually hearing?
  • Is your life (as a whole) a monument, a testimony, that attracts, motivates, and compels people to listen to you?
  • What do your relationships communicate to people who are taking the time to notice? How many of your friendships date back over a decade or two? How many of your friendships include people who disagree with you on what you perceive as Important issues? Do “prostitutes and tax gatherers” listen to you gladly, as they did Jesus?
Questions such as these are what is Important and—as for the questions about why I have “changed”—what is Important to Me.

Copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007

Halfway to Heaven

When the days in front of you are fewer than the days before you, when the time you have left on earth is shorter than the time you have already been here, your perspective begins to shift.

When you are young, life is filled with so much hope and promise of joys to come. All that is before you is potential, dreams to come true, and hopes to be realized. And whatever is plaguing you—whatever angst’s you may be experiencing—“will be dealt with and resolved…sooner if not later.” All will be well. By the time you pass the halfway-to-heaven-years, you have experienced enough “hopes deferred” that you are now somewhat cautious with “hope,” and much of what plagued you and elicited your angst is ever with you: often more powerful than ever. For some idiotic reason, you just never got around to dealing with them. After all, as you sang along with Jagger, “Tiiiiiiiime is on my side, yes it is.”

Now that life is narrowing, time is no longer on my side. Whereas in what Shakespeare referred to as the green salad days of life we can move at almost a lackadaisical pace, when the view of our end here is taking on ever increasing clarity, there is an ever increasing intensity to get to what matters most, to let go of what we once felt was of Monumental Importance but now know to be only so much Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing.

Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Such is the potential blessing of considering one’s inevitable death: “I am soon to die…what must be done, what needs to be accomplished, what do I want to experience of life before the end?” I say “potential” because it is only a blessing if we fully embrace the reality that our “fortnight” is coming.

Solomon said that it is better to hang out at funerals than at weddings, because funerals confront us with the reality of our own coming death. Sadly, tragically, most of us refuse “to go there.” We willfully choose to not consider and ponder our death and, consequently, are robbed of the blessings that could come our way through the concentrating of our mind.

There is an end to this life: therefore, I must make decisions. I only have so much time, so I must decide whether to go here or there, to do this or that, and to become this sort of person or that sort of person. I must get about living…now…or when the end comes my last thoughts will be filled with regrets…thoughts filled with would-have, could-have, and should-haves.

You wish—at least, I wish—I had lived my life with my mind concentrated on my inevitable death. Instead, the temptation is always to think that there is plenty of time to do what I want or must, to become the man I wish to be. Instead, “One day” becomes the mantra that lulls and pacifies and, consequently, robs us of all that could have been.

(By the way, this is why I encourage young-people to adopt-an-older-person as a friend and mentor. Young people—no matter how wise they have become—are, nevertheless, limited by their life experiences. They haven’t walked through a bankruptcy, a failed marriage, wayward children, a church-split or the death of a vision and so have yet to discover—at least to some degree—what is Important in the overall scheme of things.)

God willing, I still have plenty of years ahead of me, as do you. But what if you are over halfway-to-heaven and see that your life has not turned out as you had hoped? Do you give up?

In the movie
Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play John and Jane Smith. After six years of marriage they discover that each is a covert assassin. After their first confrontation with reality, John goes to his friend Eddie’s house (played by Vince Vaughn), telling him that his wife had just tried to kill him. John is in shock, feeling like a fool. At one point Eddie tells him,

“It’s like 150 pages of a book that has been written. The first 150 pages, Johnny has been a clown. But you can write the last 10 pages. You’ve been smoked, but you can write the last 10 pages.”

No matter how poorly your book reads up to this point of your biography, you can change the entire book by how the last pages are written. The story will remain the same, however, if you still behave as if “
Tiiiime is on my side…

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2007

This One Thing

In the movie City Slickers, (Yesterday They Were Businessmen. Today They're Cowboys. Tomorrow They'll Be Walking Funny) Billy Crystal plays a middle aged businessman who is going through a mid-life crisis. So as to kick-start his life, he decides to take two of his friends on a cattle drive, where they rediscover purpose and passion for life.

Mitch, Before the Cattle Drive (Billy Crystal): Value this time in your life kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices, and it goes by so quickly. When you're a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, you make a little money and you think to yourself, "What happened to my twenties?" Your forties, you grow a little potbelly you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You'll call it a procedure, but it's a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still loud but it doesn't matter because you can't hear it anyway. Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale; you start eating dinner at two, lunch around ten, breakfast the night before. And you spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt and muttering, "how come the kids don't call?" By your eighties, you've had a major stroke, and you end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can't stand but who you call mama. Any questions?

These are the words of a jaded, borderline cynical man who is terrified that life is not all he once thought it would be. Tragically, this is where many men (and women) find themselves around the age of 40. They then either let themselves go, growing a potbelly and another chin, or they do a complete makeover (not the same thing as reinventing yourself), thinking that a change of externals will give their soul the boost it needs. It doesn’t. They then either try on another appearance or they give up altogether and spend the rest of their lives simply going through the motions, “wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt.” This happens with Christians as often as it does to non-Christians.

I think the key to avoiding this crisis, or of pulling one’s self out of it, is to discover your purpose in life. What is that One Thing that will pull you out of bed every morning? I say One Thing because I have learned from painful experience that many of us set about to do many things well and end up doing a few things marginally well.

I think that discovering your purpose in life begins with settling the issue regarding what sort of person you wish to become: Who Am I? Who Am I Supposed to Become? I am not him, I am not her…I am not supposed to be him or her, I am to be whomever God meant when he said, “Let there be Monte.” As Rabbi Zusya said, “In the world to come, I shall not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

As you begin settling this question, you will gain clarity as to the virtues, values, and ethical standards that are important to you…attributes you wish to personify or incarnate. This in turn will lead to a clarification of those actions and deeds you find most compelling. For example, if “justice” is of critical importance to you, you may find that the “arena of your achievement” (Tom Peters) is law. Of course, justice is important to all of us, but to some of us it is the raison d’etre.

I think we also often find our purpose as we get about serving others. As we do this, we find that there are particular deeds we most always perform as a service. What does it say about us, about our intuitive sense of purpose, when we are constantly giving away books (education, teaching), or battling injustice (law), or helping someone to develop skills so as to better their financial prospects (giving, business)?

Actually, I have found that no matter how unclear someone is about their purpose in life, if they are giving themselves to others in a meaningful way, they not only avoid the midlife crisis, they actually have a sense of purpose that keeps their lives grounded. A father who has yet to discover that One Thing, will, nevertheless, find his contribution worthy of self-satisfaction as he rears children who are mentally, morally, and spiritually healthy. A man or woman who sets about serving others finds that the strength and encouragement they bring to people gives them a sense of purpose worthy of the gift of life. Thomas Merton spoke to this idea when he wrote:

“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

The sooner we discover our purpose in life, that One Thing for which we were created to do, the sooner we can get forget about all of the good and interesting things we might do and begin focusing on, in religious terms, our calling. In the movie, Curly (Jack Palance) speaks to this when he asks Mitch:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
Curly: [
holding up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: [
smiles] That's what you have to find out.

Copyright Monte E Wilson, 2007