What’s Real?

images-1Everything material emerged from the immaterial. Every building is constructed on a design. Every design is based on an idea.

As Emerson observed, “thoughts rule the world.” A thought precedes every action, change, or motion.

In this world, things only have the value we give them. There is no intrinsic value to the jewelry we wear, the cars we drive, the things we buy, or the coin and currency we use to make these transactions. The value of these things is supported by faith and a belief system that provides a symbolic value where there inherently is none. In different cultures, the same value is assigned to a different symbolic currency.

The words we use to describe things are as inexact and conceptual as the things they describe. In other words, the words we use to describe things are not the things they represent. Words merely stand imperfectly for the things they represent in our minds.

Much of the confusion of our day-to-day conversations is a result of this process. The word “table” conjures up a flat surface supported by legs, but the image that comes to mind – the shape of the surface, the contour, height and even number of legs – is determined by our expectation and experience. Yet, when we say the word ‘table’ we all assume we are seeing the same thing.

We have it reversed. The material is immaterial. What is real is not what we can see but what we sense. Buildings crumble. Success fades. Flesh decays. We are not immortal, but our thoughts are.

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Independence Day

searchMost of us are descendants of people who have come to America from some other place. Many endured great hardships to do so, leaving everything familiar behind, taking with them only the clothes on their backs, a few meager belongings and their hopes and dreams.

You have to wonder – what is so compelling?

Patrick Henry said it was the greatest of all earthly blessings – liberty, which John Adams defined “as to be the power to do as we would be done by.”

In paraphrasing the Golden Rule to define liberty, Adams makes a fundamental point. Ours is the first society to define itself in terms of both spirituality and human liberty.

De Tocqueville said it this way:

“The American character is the result of two distinct elements, which in other places have been in frequent hostility, but which in America have been admirably incorporated and combined with one another. I allude to the spirit of religion and the spirit of Liberty. Religion never more surely establishes its empire than when it reigns in the hearts of men unsupported by aught beside its native strength. Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs – as the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”

The same understanding led Thomas Jefferson to say, “If there ever was a holy war, it was the one that saved our liberties and gave us independence,” and justified Benjamin Franklin’s claim, “Our cause is the cause of all mankind.”

Liberty is not just an idea, an abstract principle.  Liberty is power – the power to do specific things, the power of acting.  Therein lies much of the secret of America’s success. The more liberty a nation can claim, the more powerful it becomes.

“Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us,” President Lincoln said.  “Our defense is in the spirit which primed liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your door.”

The spirit of liberty is the key. Judge Learned Hand said it this way:

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other man and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him, who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten: that there is a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”

It is that spirit we celebrate today. Happy Independence Day!

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Martin Luther King, Donald Sterling, and the Washington Redskins

imgresI was working at the Senate when Martin Luther King was killed. The day after his assassination I heard a United States Senator say, “It’s about time someone killed that son-of-a bitch.”

This remark was made in a public place. There were dozens of people around. There were a couple of startled expressions but no one said a word.

This Senator went on to be re-elected repeatedly. They named roads and buildings after him. Near the end of his career the entire Senate turned out to honor him at a dinner in the Capitol where people who should have known better hailed him as one of the Senate’s icons.

In contrast, Donald Sterling’s remarks were made in private. When they were publicized the public’s outrage was immediate and overwhelming. The message was clear and undeniable: Times have changed. We are not going to tolerate this kind of behavior any more.

Daniel Snyder would do well to take note. He has steadfastly ignored the growing chorus of Native Americans, journalists, public officials, and activists who find the word “Redskins” offensive.

In his defense, Snyder didn’t name the team. It was part of the equity he purchased in 1999. Plus, it is of value not only to him, but also to others in the NFL who share in pooled royalties from merchandise and broadcasting. A name change would clearly have broad and significant financial implications.

Understandable as this may be, the simple truth is that this issue isn’t going away and can’t be papered over.  Times have changed and the tide is running against the Old Guard.  Our society increasingly has little tolerance for racism, sexism, and all the other ‘isms’ that keep us separate and apart.

It is part of our quest to form “a more perfect union” and a reflection of a growing awareness that our seemingly independent lives are rooted together beneath the surface and tied to a common source. We cannot diminish others without diminishing ourselves.

The name “Washington Redskins” may be historical, but it is on the wrong side of history. It’s time to let it go and move on.

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You Can’t Love Without Giving

imagesAt our house, we never knew who would be joining us for dinner. My mother lost her mother at an early age. All of her life she carried vivid memories of being passed from hand to hand, relative to distant relative, doing without and never quite feeling like she belonged. In her house, all were welcome. Everyone belonged.

Food was love. No one ever went away hungry. After my brother and I grew old enough to live independently, the chief beneficiary of my mother’s affection was an Airedale, Cassie, who was so well taken care of I affectionately nicknamed her “Little Sister.”

Cassie was the runt of the litter, but under Mom’s care she grew to be about as wide as she was tall. It was not uncommon to find her cooking an egg or boiling a chicken to “sweeten” the dog’s dinner.

At the time it seemed funny. Since then, I have come to understand it as something more – You can’t love without giving.

The truth of this observation is borne out daily in the market place. In fact, much of modern commerce is built around this fundamental aspect of our nature. Implicit in many advertisements for goods or services, explicit and inescapable in the buying occasions organized to coincide with celebrations of those we love – Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Father’s Day, and, of course, Mother’s Day – is the knowledge that we can easily be persuaded to demonstrate our affection for someone we love by buying something for them.

The impulse to give to those we love is irresistible. What we call humanitarianism is nothing more than a healthier extension of this basic instinct and a broader, more inclusive love. We give to each other out of love, but the gifts we give pale by comparison to the gift of love itself.

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The Joy of Service

donate_thankuWhen I wrote to tell JoAnn Cayce she had been nominated for a national award, JoAnn responded:  “I don’t know this fellow that’s nominated me – he happened to be the mayor of an adjacent town – and I don’t know what I’ve done that he thinks is so special.  I’m just doing what my mother and grandmother have done before me.  And besides, I don’t have much use for awards anyway.  The President wanted to give me an award last year and I told him to put it in the mail.”

I loved her response so much I tried to call her.  For six months, she wouldn’t talk with me.  She was too busy taking care of the poor to be bothered talking about it.

Finally, one hot summer day we got together at her home in a wide spot in the road, called Thornton, Arkansas. When I asked her why she did what she did, she told me her earliest memories were of her mother taking care of people.

“My mother always saw after everybody who couldn’t see after themselves.  We never knew who would be eating or sleeping with us.  She would take in prostitutes, alcoholics, anyone.  She was always filling out papers for them, taking people food or clothing – whatever.  In her later years she would get up in the morning and put on a big pot of turnip greens or beans or soup and she would watch the people coming down this road out here to see who might be hungry.”

JoAnn followed her mother’s lead for more than forty years.  A one-woman Salvation Army, she did whatever needed to be done for the poor in the four counties surrounding the little town of Thornton, Arkansas.  It is a mark of her impact that many government agencies referred problems they couldn’t solve to her.

When I asked about it, she said “I do nothing” and pointed to the contents of her two storage sheds.  “All this stuff has been given to us.  I’m just a tunnel it flows through.  It didn’t come from me.  It comes from caring people.  A lot of them, I never see.  I don’t even know how they find out about me, but they will come here and bring things or drop them off on the porch.”

JoAnn believed human begins cannot be fully happy until they serve the purpose God intended for them.  She found her joy in helping others and felt blessed by the process.

“The poor have done for me more than I will ever do for them,” she said.  “They make me feel needed.  What would I do with my life if I didn’t have people who needed me?  Play bridge?  Collect dolls and clean house?  Anybody can dust!  It’s a joy to just be alive and be of service to somebody.

“I don’t care how who you are,” she said.  “You can find a way to help somebody.  When you want to find a way, there is a way.  Don’t ever be afraid to do what is in your heart.”

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