Dealing with unfinished business on the cusp of the Jewish New Year

As a Jew I am proud to be a part of a people whose lives are guided by a mix of biblical commandments and laws blended with traditions and customs that have been handed down from over the millennia through Rabbis, teachers and family.  We are a diverse people who adhere to certain universally held truths all the while as we travel different paths guided by our particular practices and theology.  We describe our faith as having branches, movements, or denominations that share much in common while identifying with many different observances.  It is what you get in a religion that is not hierarchical but where rituals are determined by local clergy who decide how their congregational community should practice their faith.

Of the many things that help define Jewish practice, nothing is more identifiable than the holidays and festivals that appear on our calendar.  All Jews, whether observant or not, recognize and understand the meaning of celebrations like Passover and Chanukah even if they do not participate in those special days.  And the holidays that are most widely understood are Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which is followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, the end of a period of repentance.  These observances, usually referred to as the High Holy Days have their own ritual practices that are known throughout the Jewish world and even among most of our non-Jewish neighbors and friends.  The trumpet-like blasts of the Shofar, an ancient instrument made from a ram’s horn, is the iconic image and sound of the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement.  The Shofar can be heard in every Jewish synagogue regardless of whatever else may set them apart.

We are on the cusp of the Jewish New Year of 5781.  Many will approach this holy day in new ways this year because of the way in which COVID-19 has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives.  For so many Jews, remaining at home on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would have been unthinkable before the pandemic struck.  But this year many Jews will be in prayer in their home sitting in front of a screen watching religious services on Zoom, Google Meet, streamed on YouTube or Facebook Live.  Not having the chance to meet our friends and family in synagogue to wish them well and hope they are inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet New Year will leave us feeling empty, incomplete and unfulfilled. 

History teaches us that there have been countless periods when our practice of gathering together in the Synagogue has not been possible.  Jews driven out of Spain in the 15th Century couldn’t gather communally to pray.  Jews driven out of Russian villages because of pogroms had their religious practices denied.  Jews in the death camps during the Holocaust certainly had no Shofar to listen to or Torah to read from. 

During the past six months we have learned to make use of technology to link us together to meet, learn, teach, celebrate, mourn, be entertained and worship.  We are an adaptive people and we will rely on the thousands of years when we were forced to unwillingly adjust our practices and our lives.  But for all of the persecution and mistreatment suffered by the Jewish people we have learned that our work is never done.  Our lives may have been put on hold but our faith has taught us that any unfinished business would eventually be completed.

In 1957 Allen Saunders, the American writer, journalist and cartoonist wrote that life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.  Saunders taught us that we should all expect to have some unfinished business to deal with.  How we deal with our unfinished business is what matters.  We each have something we need to deal with or work on.  We all have things that we have not yet done, dealt with, or completed.  The causes of our personal unfinished business matters much less than the fact that we acknowledge that our spiritual, emotional or relational “to do list” has items yet to be checked off.

Many Jews circle Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on their calendar as the time when they think they can complete their unfinished business.  There are those who believe that all they have done or neglected to do throughout the year is a scorecard to be settled up with the traditional call for teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah (repentance, prayer and righteous acts) to avert the severe decree.  The notion of the High Holy Days being a once a year “get out of jail card” redeemed in exchange for confession of sin has always puzzled and confused me.

I grew up in a small New England town where my friends’ families were either Catholic or Jewish.  I knew about the Catholic tradition of confession which could be offered as often or infrequently as the faithful felt so moved.  Make the confession, get some instruction from the Priest and you were good to go.  It was like hitting a big reset button for misdeeds.  Jews, on the other hand, kept track of their sins and attended the Super Bowl of forgiveness on the High Holy Days when we offered our confession and hoped for a good outcome.

I’ve come to believe that those practices should leave the person of faith with more questions than answers.  Chief among them is the presumption that accepting wrongdoing and promises to refrain from repeating them would be sufficient.  I have never thought that was enough.  Our tradition teaches that on Yom Kippur we are to seek out those we have harmed and try to make amends.  I always wondered why we don’t work harder throughout the year to find those who we may have wronged or hurt and to try to resolve issues with others wherever and whenever possible.  Yes, changes in behavior which promise to not repeat the wrongs are important.  But it seems to me that every bit as important is to make amends with those we may have wronged.

That is the unfinished business that we should all consider completing.  Waiting for a designated date on the calendar to take care of your unfinished business seems to me to be artificial or contrived in some way.

Many Jews follow the custom of asking a sort of blanket forgiveness to others for the errors of their ways.  Some express their apologies more personally or intimately.  I have always appreciated the message that has become popular in recent years.

To those I have wronged, I ask for forgiveness.

For those I may have helped, I wish I could have done more.

For the many I neglected to help, I am truly sorry.

To those who helped me, I am deeply grateful.

The sentiment is nice but it feels like an imperfect substitute for the more direct, albeit difficult conversations we could consider having with those with whom we have some true unfinished business.  No matter how we choose to communicate and no matter whether our request for forgiveness is accepted the responsibility is on us to take the first step. We are not responsible for our request for forgiveness to be accepted or rejected.  Our responsibility is to offer it.  We are all imperfect human beings leading imperfect lives and making imperfect choices and decisions.  The extent to which the things we say and do have caused pain to others we should do all we can to express our regret to those we may have hurt or harmed whether willfully or unintentionally. The burden of carrying around the baggage of unfinished business weighs us down and slows our ability to move forward.  This is not the time to deal with unfinished business simply because we are on the cusp of the Jewish New Year.  I don’t believe in scheduling opportunities to do what is right.  Every day is the right time to try and settle any unfinished business because it is the right thing to do for others and ourselves.

What’s up with whataboutism?

I have friends who are supporters of Donald Trump.  When I ask why or how they could be supportive I get vague and hard to understand reasons that usually start with: “I don’t like what he says.  I don’t like his style.  I wish he didn’t Tweet so much.  Yes, some of the things he says are offensive and problematic.  But I like what he’s done.”

I truly respect people who have different opinions than I do.  As they say that’s why Baskin-Robbins offers 31 flavors.  After all, I confess that ice cream is one of my few addictions but I wouldn’t eat coffee flavored ice cream if I were stranded on a desert island and coffee ice cream was the flavor one available.

So it’s perfectly fine with me that there are those who support Trump.  But what confuses me and just as often exasperates me is that people are willing to set aside all the things they profess to dislike about him and accept that what he has done, presumably for them, is reason enough to want four more years of Donald Trump.

The irony, of course, is that when pressed for specifics, Trump fans will point to any number of promises made but not kept.  Or, in the rare case of a promise fulfilled there are those who fail to analyze for themselves how a particular policy, legislative accomplishment, or executive order actually works out for them personally or for the nation and even the world more generally.

In the rare cases when I try to dialogue with them I discover that to be a hopeless effort.  I can attempt to litigate Trump’s countless fact-checked lies, failures, bad policy choices and examples of shameful behavior.  But seldom do his supporters offer any real evidence that my assertions are wrong.  There is rarely a brief that they can present to support their belief in his many accomplishments.  But what I do often get is a pivot to whataboutism.

So what is this debate tactic of whataboutism all about and what’s up with whataboutism anyway?

Whataboutism, also known as whataboutery, is a variant of the tu quoque (Latin for “you also”) logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by charging them with hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving their argument.  It is a method of responding to an argument or an allegation without speaking to the facts of the matter but instead pivoting to another line of discussion.

Trump supporters will often respond to a charge against their guy by saying: “But what about…?” and then complete their sentence by naming someone of equal position or stature.  Pointing out Trump’s flaws often elicits a response like: “But what about Barak Obama, or Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton?” or any other public figure that a Trump loyalist believes committed detestable acts equal to or greater than their man.

Why do people use whataboutism to defend or deflect criticism of someone they support?  Is it because they are not in sufficient command of facts to refute claims made?  Is it because they are incapable of waging a battle where the ammunition is logic and facts?  Is it because they have bought their guy’s propaganda hook, liner and sinker?  Is it out of blind loyalty?  Or is it out of fear of being proven wrong or the consequences of their own inability to fairly adjudicate the case based on facts?  Or perhaps is it a little bit of all of the above?

There was a time when it was common to enter the polling booth as a registered member of a political party and proceed to make thoughtful selections based on the merits of each individual candidate.  Sometimes voters pulled the lever for candidates of their party but frequently they voted against type and cast a vote for a member of an opposing party in the belief that she or he was the best choice for that office at that moment.

As an example of this ticket-splitting practice I offer my home state of Massachusetts.  Despite being one of the most solidly Democratic states in national elections, Massachusetts elected Republican governors in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2014, and 2018. In 2018, Republican Governor Charlie Baker was reelected in a landslide, winning about two thirds of the vote and sweeping every county. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren won reelection by over 20 points, and all 9 Representatives of Massachusetts (all Democrats) won their reelections.

In the 2004 elections in Montana Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Schweitzer was elected governor 50.4% to 46.0%, while incumbent Republican President George W. Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry 59% to 39%. This suggests that a large number of the electorate voted for a split-ticket, selecting a Republican presidential candidate and a Democratic Party gubernatorial candidate. Another example is the 2016 West Virginia gubernatorial election, in which Democrat (now Republican) Jim Justice won by 8 points while Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won in the state with 68% of the vote.

FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregation website reports that ticket-splitting is on the decline.  That is to say that whether you enter the polling booth as a Republican or a Democrat the odds are you are increasingly likely to vote a straight party ticket.  Republicans vote for Republicans.  Democrats vote for Democrats.  Not always but in ever increasing percentages.

So what should we conclude from this?  Voters are increasingly aligned with a political party’s ideology and philosophy and less inclined to be thoughtful and to be discriminate and differentiate one candidate from another.  Facts seem to matter less and voters are increasingly likely to “dance with the one who brung ‘em”.

We seem to be living in a “don’t confuse me with the facts” era that results in an ever increasing use of the whataboutism card to provide a sense of self-forgiveness to those unable or unwilling to get out of their comfort zone.  We hear the faithful talking about the need to reject the suggestion that they should “change horse in midstream”.  But when the horse is lame and not likely to see you through to the end of a journey then changing horses may be the prudent thing to do.

I’m hopeful that American voters will retreat from the comfort of responding to those who indict their candidate by the easy but hollow argument of whataboutism.  Merit can certainly be in the eye of the beholder.  But as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

No one should be blamed for making what, in hindsight, could be reasonably said to be a bad choice.  But as Albert Einstein taught us, repeating the same mistake and expecting a different outcome is the very definition of insanity.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.

So this year, instead of honing the not so fine art of whataboutism why don’t we try to practice howaboutism?  How about we abandon our tribal behavior and habits and think about ways we can use critical thinking and act independently from the herd.

How many preventable deaths are too many?

For the past seven months attention to death has been the major story covered on television, radio and in newspapers.  Media coverage of death has been unavoidable. Death will remain among the most alarming topics covered by journalists, commentators, bloggers, religious leaders, politicians, celebrities and just ordinary Americans for months and even years to come.  And while there are lots of ways that death becomes headline news it is not death from violence, natural disasters, war or accidents that is the most puzzling.

We understand the underlying causes of these events which snuff out human life.  After all, they are not new. They have been with us throughout our entire lives.  And try as we must we have come to accept them as a tragic fact of life that in most cases we are impotent to stop and often unwilling to try to prevent.  But the death of almost 190,000 Americans confuses, frustrates and angers civilized people who know that many of those previous lives did not have to be lost.

People of faith often speak about the sanctity of life each in their own way based on their religious teachings.  But all three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam share certain common values about the preciousness of life and the importance to try and protect and preserve it when possible.  And yet it seems that far too many Americans have forgotten the basic tenets and teachings of their faiths.

So what do the three major religions have to say about the importance of saving lives?

  • In Judaism, pikuach nefesh is the principle that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule. When the life of a specific person is in danger, almost any command to not do an action of the Torah becomes inapplicable. Jews are taught that to save a life is to save the world.
  • For Christians, human life is sacred and is a gift from God which is to be respected and protected. This teaching is called the sanctity of life.
  • In Islam, life is sacred and one of the greatest gifts and blessings of God. Every moment of life has great value and is irreversible. Therefore, it must be appreciated and protected even if it has a poor quality

Other religions, and even those who profess to have no religion at all, also believe that life is precious and deserve to be protected and saved.  So why then are we scratching our collective heads at the rising death rates from COVID-19?  Why do so many of us seem so willing to accept the inevitability of even more death from what seems to be an unstoppable pandemic that has not spared a single region or demographic in our nation?

Today’s report by CNN has made the horror of the past seven months almost pale by comparison to the ominous projections for the next four months.

(CNN) – More than 410,000 people in the US could die from the coronavirus by January 1, more than doubling the current death toll, a new model often cited by top health officials predicted Friday.  That would mean 224,000 more lives lost in the US over the next four months.

Near-universal mask use could cut the number of projected additional fatalities by more than half, according to the model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. But it also warns the cumulative death toll could be much higher by the new year if all restrictions are eased.

“If a herd immunity strategy is pursued, meaning no further government intervention is taken from now to Jan 1st, the death toll could increase to 620,000,” according to IHME’s briefing.

The death rate could reach an unprecedented 3,000 a day by December, due in part to “declining vigilance of the public,” the IHME expects. For now, the model points to declining mask use in some regions from peak usage in early August.

The numbers are so numbing and so hard to get our minds around that it is difficult to describe them with words so let me try and offer some images that might help comprehend the magnitude to this near-apocalyptic loss.

At the time of this writing 187,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus.  Let’s look at those numbers in ways in which we might be able to better understand.

  • 187,000 deaths would be the same as though 1,263 Southwest Airlines planes crashed killing every soul on board. That would be the same as more than six fatal airplane crashes every day since the first COVID death in the U.S.
  • 187,000 deaths is as though the following cities were wiped off the map: Rochester NY; Richmond, VA; Spokane, WA; Des Moines, IA; Montgomery, AL; Modesto, CA; Fayetteville, NC; Tacoma, WA; or Shreveport, LA.  Which of these cities and all of its residents do you think are expendable?
  • 187,000 deaths is as though everyone attending a football game at the Rose Bowl AND Michigan Stadium on the same day were killed.

187,000 dead from Coronavirus are not data or statistics.  They are mothers and fathers; grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, children, friends, neighbors, colleagues and precious souls we don’t know but whose lives we should respect and mourn.  Lives worth of saving but too many lives sacrificed to incompetence and indifference.

If the IHME projections of cumulative deaths are accurate the pandemic will have taken the lives of 410,000 Americans by the end of this year.  During the month of December this highly respected research center projects that 3,000 people will die from COVID every day.  3,000 deaths is as though we will be experiencing the death toll of 9/11 every day during the month of December.

Would every one of these deaths have been preventable?  No, but experts say that prudent mitigation steps including hygiene, masks, social distancing, contact tracing and aggressive closure or modification of non-essential gatherings would certainly have saved tens of thousands of lives.

So, how many lives are too many lives to lose to a disease that could have been attacked early and aggressively?  And how many lives are too many lives to lose because we are not making universal decisions based on science and public health experts but too often because of political and public policy malpractice?  How do we hold those responsible for far too many of these deaths responsible and accountable for the blood that is on their hands and their complicity in the astronomical loss of life?

When it comes to preventable deaths, how many are too many?  How much is too much?  When is enough simply enough?  When will the hollow words about the sanctity of life spoken by sanctimonious politicians turn from rhetoric to urgent and emergent action?  And when will the consequences of our failed national policies of health, safety and security of our fellow citizens become our national tipping point signaling changes to our eroding national values?

We are taught that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.  Failing to heed this lesson is a terrifying existential threat to our nation’s moral compass.  It is time to re-calibrate our compass and stop talking about the value of human life but to start to do something about preserving and protecting life.  Vaccines may help the disease but what is also needed is a vaccine that will offer immunity from the cavalier attitude far too many have about the value of human life.

If your body computer is sluggish it may be time to download Hope v 3.0

When your desktop computer’s performance is slow, sluggish, freezing up, refusing to work properly, or worst of all showing the blue screen of death it is a likely sign that your machine has a virus or you may be in need of a software update.  When your laptop fails to compute or is, as the techies like to say, “behaving buggy”, then you may need a new version of your operating system or updates to the installed programs.

Well, humans are nothing more than living computers and our CPU or Central Processing Unit is our brain and sometimes it experiences symptoms much the same as the machines we rely on to solve many of life’s problems or which help us to make informed decisions.

Updating a computer is usually pretty straightforward.  Find the program you need, click download and let the new software install.  Voila!  Your computer is now up to date and it should be working like a charm.

But what happens when we’re feeling dispirited, discouraged, demoralized, or disheartened because of the circumstances of our lives, the condition of our nation or the state of the world?  How do we repair the symptoms of a “buggy” computer when it is our mind, body, heart, soul and spirit that is in need of a reboot?  It’s not so easy to download new software to get our internal computer up and running and back online.  Or is it?

The updates our bodies need can’t be installed by inserting shiny computer discs or electronically transferring gazillions of 0’s and 1’s of binary code.  But the update that will ensure that we once again run smoothly may come from downloading Hope version 3.0.

Hope helps us cope with the hyper partisan politics of personal destruction.  Hope injects optimism that what has created fear and anxiety about the future of our democracy can in fact be beaten back.  Hope can renew our energy and commitment to advocate and fight for equal right, human rights, and the rights of the marginalized and mistreated who are in need and deserving of social justice.

If you doubt the power of Hope think back 28 years to a July night in Madison Square Garden when Bill Clinton accepted his party’s nomination for President of the United States.  Clinton ended his acceptance speech with these words: “I still believe in a place called Hope”.  When he said that how did it make you feel?  Clinton was not just referring to his hometown of Hope, Arkansas he was virtually downloading an updated version of Hope into the minds and hearts of millions of us.

Or think back to July 2004, four years before his presidency, when Barack Obama electrified the Democratic National Convention with an address that spoke to Americans across the political spectrum. One phrase in particular anchored itself in listeners’ minds, a reminder that for all the discord and struggle to be found in our history as a nation, we have always been guided by a dogged optimism in the future, or what Obama called “the audacity of hope.”  That phrase would later become the title of Obama’s best-selling book.  And it’s impossible to think back to Obama’s run for the Presidency without remembering the iconic “Hope” poster designed by artist Shepard Fairey.  How did Obama’s use of Hope make you feel?

When Clinton and Obama used talked to us about Hope they were providing us with their versions of essential spiritual and emotional software that could boost our spirits and helped us envision better times ahead.  And if used correctly that software might just instill in us a new sense of energy and optimism.  Their promise of Hope became our self-fulfilling prophecy because we trusted them to deliver what we wanted and needed.

If Clinton gave us Hope v 1.0 and Obama gave us an update to Hope v 2.0 then where do we turn now for a much-needed update to Hope v 3.0?  We can find it by looking for those leaders who inspire optimism rather than fear.  Leaders who share a promise of better times for all with a spirit of inclusion when everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has an equal opportunity for a better life.  Leaders who promote unity instead of stoking division and class warfare.  Look for those who connect with our better angels and pledge that a rising tide will lift all boats. Avoid those who operate from a mindset of scarcity in favor of those who promote a sense of abundance.  Follow those who know that we shouldn’t fight with each other over the same piece of the pie but instead we can and should work to make the pie bigger. Listen to those who offer unqualified messages that send positive chills down your spine because they promote love over hate and attention to others and not to themselves.  Seek those who show that they know the difference between rights and privileges.  And size them up not by what they say but what they do and what they have done.  Do all of that and you will have downloaded and installed Hope v 3.0 and your internal computer should be running smoothly once again.

We are now in the quadrennial season of promises by those who aspire to lead.  Hopefully we have become wiser and better-informed consumers more able than ever before to look past the highly produced and self-promoting plethora of political ads on tv, radio and on social media.  We need to learn to tell the difference between political vaporware, malware, and effective software.  The responsibility is on us to look past bumper sticker and ball cap slogans and drill down to the bedrock of what our politicians are all about.  And when you find authentically inspiring leaders download what they have to offer and be sure to install their latest version of Hope.  It’s bound to refresh your internal operating system and your best chance to perform and feel your best once again.

Use gratitude to refill your glass

It is not difficult to imagine the vast number of people who are feeling darkness, desolation, disgust and despondency in their lives these days.  We are battling a once in a century world-wide pandemic which has infected millions and will likely snuff out the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americas by the time it is over…if it is ever over.  We are living, or perhaps just surviving, in an era of hyper-partisan political rancor that has well-meaning people wondering why they should even bother to vote for politicians whose overall approval ratings and trust are lower than the proverbial used car salesman.  It is a time when we are witnessing the resurgence of racial enmity, division and violence that begs the question about just how far have we actually come as a civil society and what became of the inspiring words Emma Lazarus composed for the base of the Statue of Liberty?  And it is a year when prosperity has turned to poverty for millions of people who have lost their livelihood, their ability to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their families and who understandably doubt if and when their personal recovery will ever occur.

Simon Sinek, a British-born American author and motivational speaker, says “People who wonder whether the glass is half empty or half full miss the point. The glass is refillable.”

So, the question must be asked, how full is your glass and what are you doing to refill it?

We all face challenging times.  Most of us are confronted by the ugliness that we see on cable news or the front page of our local newspaper.  Others of us face our own difficulties in our personal lives because of economic stress, family tensions, workplace issues and a myriad of other doubts, disputes and demons.

Those who are inveterate optimists would describe their life’s glass as half full.  While the pessimists among us see their glass as half empty.  But if Simon Sinek is right and our glass is truly refillable then the question for each of us is how do we fill it to overflowing?   Perhaps the tap that needs to be opened widely is the one marked attitude.  But not just an attitude that helps shape our frame of mind or our disposition.  What can fill our glasses to the brim is an attitude of gratitude.

How then, in the face of all the burdens we bear, do we become grateful?

The place to start is by acknowledging that however difficult life seems to be for so many of us, if we could be completely honest, we would admit that we really have a multitude of blessings in our lives.  If we have clothes to wear, a roof over our heads, protection from the elements, food on our table, those who care for and about us and in turn those we care for and about, relative health of body, mind and spirit and access to medical care when needed then we need only call to mind those who lack some, or worse yet, all of these blessings.

If the pandemic has curtailed the activities we enjoy and the gatherings we long to take part in then we need only think about those who stand at busy intersections asking for a handout so they may eat and drink and who may not have another soul in their lives that will embrace them at the end of the day.  If we are quick to anger at the way our politics has seemed to devolve into a back alley brawl then we need only to think about those in countries where there are no ballots, no polling places and no opportunity to freely choose leaders to represent them.  If we are disgusted by the way the marginalized are treated by being caged, beaten and too often killed then we need only think about how we can use our own privilege to stand up and stand for those who are mistreated and brutalized.

No matter how tough we think we have it, it is a rare person who who would want to trade places with those living on the margins.  And our places are by and large good, safe and comfortable.

If we pause to get in touch with the way our lives have been blessed and the many things we have reason to be grateful for it should cause us to ask ourselves how then do we use our attitude of gratitude to do something positive that will keep our glasses full and overflowing?  As the poet wrote: “let me count the ways.”

Selfless acts of giving back to others are the best way to demonstrate how gratitude can be actualized.  When gratitude is expressed in ways that heal it is as much a gift to the helper as to those helped.  And it definitely refills the glass from half to full.

There are so many ways to connect with others and to give to others.  Religious institutions like synagogues, churches and mosques have active programs of outreach to the community on behalf of those in need. Find one that fits your beliefs.  Faith based organizations such as Arizona Jews for Justice, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Islamic Social Services Association offer opportunities to volunteer through their social justice programs and charitable initiatives.  Find one whose work motivates you.  And countless secular organizations exist in every community to provide relief to those who are hungry, homeless, imprisoned, looking for a new homeland, those who are abused, neglected, under-educated, and those facing more challenges than can be listed.  Find one and step up to join in their work.

So, what does one do?  Take one step and then another and before long you will find yourself blazing your own path of giving, sharing and loving motivated by your own sense of gratitude and with appreciation for all of your blessings.  Your gifts will be returned to you multi-fold.  You will feel satisfaction, gratification and pure gratitude for your ability to lift others up.  It will nourish your soul and definitely fill your glass.  And even though your life may not be perfect and despite the many things that understandably cast a dark shadow on your view of the world, the act of giving to others will cause the sun to shine a little more brightly and help you redefine what is truly important.

If you think a small act of kindness can’t change the world then you should think about the Starfish Story.  Whether you’ve heard it before and would benefit from being reminded of it again or even if you have never heard the story, I encourage you to heed the lesson of this beautiful little parable.

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)

We would all do well to be guided by the words of theologian John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

So, how is your glass?  Half empty?  Half Full?  No matter, your glass is designed to be refilled.  And gratitude may be the best way to refill it.

How I spent my COVID summer vacation

As an elementary school age child I remember one of the first assignments we were given when we returned to class in September.  We were directed to write a composition, something today we would call an essay, on the subject “How I spent my summer vacation”.  Since we all lived in a beach resort and few if any of our families actually went on a summer getaway, our compositions all pretty much read the same.

Like most of my classmates, mine would contain the usual remembrances of our 10-week hiatus from school.  Daily trips to the beach; nighttime visits to the town’s iconic amusement park; backyard barbecues; taking in a few Red Sox games with Dad; and a host of other summer pastimes typical for a kid living in a seaside community.

As I think about writing an adult version of such an essay reflecting on the Summer of 2020 the theme and tone would be quite different.  My Summer of COVID was spent in near isolation.  I ventured out rarely and then just to go to a doctor appointment or to the grocery to re-provision the kitchen and pantry.  There were no restaurant trips.  The only interaction with others was in the virtual world of Zoom or via social media platforms, phone and email.  As I think about my Summer of COVID I’m reminded of the summers of my youth and the popular black and white television series, The Twilight Zone.  After all, this summer could have been the stuff of an excellent episode for the show’s creator Rod Serling. I’ve been holding on to the wish that the Summer of COVID would eventually turn out to be either a bad dream or a science fiction story.  But of course neither would be true.

The Summer of COVID was filled with the daily death and infection counts from the global pandemic that was killing people in every corner of the world.  The ever-present counter on the CNN screen was tallying the death toll like the tote board of a dystopian telethon.

Newscasters brought us stories of senseless murders of black Americans at the hands and knees of those who were otherwise sworn to serve and protect.  And while the vast majority of them honored their oaths with distinction too many of their fellow officers snuffed out too many black lives, each of which mattered.

This summer we mourned the passing of the field marshals and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement at a time when their voices and leadership would be needed more than ever.  The deaths of Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis extinguished the lights lit by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  And with the loss of those iconic human rights leaders the nation would wonder what new voices would replace their silenced advocacy.

We watched as millions of everyday men and women filled the nation’s streets in peaceful protests to stand for justice and equality only to be beaten and gassed not seen since the 60’s.  Peaceful protesters found their cause hijacked by firebomb throwing looters who blended into the crowds making it impossible to tell the honorable from the deplorable.  In the end, all were painted with the same brush of racism and violence by far too many local law authorities and federal troops.

When we ran out of brutal beatings and killings of people of color we turned our attention to the ugliest political discourse and behavior of our lifetimes.  The venomous spewings of many of the nation’s highest elected officials and their wingmen and women felt like wrecking balls were constantly swinging at the structures of our democracy.

Our economy became one of the costliest victims of the Summer of COVID.  Our unemployment lines reminded us of the lines at depression era soup kitchens.  50 million people lost their jobs or were furloughed.  Food banks saw lines of cars that stretched for miles with people who used to drop off donations but who were now looking for a box of food to get them through the week.  Countless families and individuals lived in fear of eviction and foreclosure.

Migrant families and asylum seekers became the target of Gestapo-like squads of Federal agents who found new sport in separating children as young as one-year old from their families and caging little ones like animals in squalid conditions.

The Summer of COVID created cottage industries pedaling the necessary supplies that we were either mandated to have or wanted to buy because it would save our lives.  Face masks, face shields, nitrile surgical gloves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper was on everyone’s shopping lists but these essentials were in short supply and even if available they came at an increased price.  Grocery stores limited the purchase of meat, cleaning supplies and other staples.

Retail stores were shuttered along with bars, restaurants, gyms, hair and nail salons.  We became a society dependent on home delivery from Amazon, Walmart, and other retailers.  And local restaurants could feed us only by home delivery or curbside pickup.

Even as the summer was only half over parents had no idea how their children would be taught when schools were supposed to re-open.  In person?  Online? A combination of both?  No one knew for sure and the anxiety of families was off the chart.

Working remotely from home, once considered a reward for diligent and faithful employees was now the way in which much of the American work force would navigate to their office.

Worshipers could not congregate in Churches, Synagogues or Mosques. Their only ability to join in communal prayer and connection was from their home watching a livestream on their computer or television.

This was the Summer of COVID and Labor Day, the traditional end of the summer season, will not bring an end to all of this.  It will extend into the holidays we celebrate in November and December.  And we may even be denied the pleasure of sports to distract us from our troubles.  It is uncertain what the fate of college and professional football will be.  The shortened baseball season may not even be able to complete its shortened schedule.

These are the low lights of the Summer of COVID and my remembrances of how I spent my COVID summer vacation.  It was and continues to be a grim and worrisome time for all of us.  But the human spirit still has a way of fighting back against evil like the hoped-for vaccine that will eventually fight off COVID.

Despite all of the darkness in what should be the sunniest time of the year we still find ways to prevail.  We still find ways to be of help to our friends, family and neighbors.  We still find ways to make the best of terrible circumstances.  We still look out for ourselves and those we care about and even those unknown to us.  And most of us work hard to find ways from sinking into the depths of depression and self-pity for the losses and inconveniences we experience.  But sadly not all of us.

The lesson of the Summer of COVID is to find ways of being grateful for the blessings we enjoy even in times of great challenge and difficulty.  We also need to remind ourselves that even at a time of scarcity and loss there is still much that we can give to soften the pain of others.

I learned that lesson in my childhood when our home was ravaged twice in thirteen months by flood.  We were taken in and cared for by our neighbors.  They helped ensure that we would weather the storm even though the actual storm had passed.  And that is the lesson that has been embedded in me through my entire life.  You see it all the time in natural disasters. You see it in times of unimaginable violence and mass killings.  You see the indomitable power and strength that can be offered to those who are suffering even by those whose own struggles are real.

The Summer of COVID has been one of the most devastating periods any of us can remember and certainly one we wish to never experience again.  But it was not without its lessons and it has taught us something about ourselves.  We have overcome.  We can overcome.  We shall overcome.

Gratitude for what we have in our lives far exceeds the despair we might feel for any sense of loss we may experience.  An attitude of gratitude can be a soothing balm for the wounds of a broken spirit or troubled soul.  But as with most medicines, gratitude only can reduce our pain if we make use of it.

So, my adult version of the iconic school child composition How I Spent My Summer Vacation is complete.  The Summer of COVID was no ordinary summer vacation.  But then we have discovered that we don’t have to be ordinary victims either.

Should a business suffer from the sins of the founder?

I’m not a biblical scholar but there are certain iconic phrases that most of us have heard even if we are not able to cite Chapter and Verse.  One of those familiar phrases is: The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons.

Clergy and academicians have discussed and debated the meaning of those words.  Not being either one I will not attempt to place my own meaning on that passage.  But I would like to pose a question as a variation on the theme for the purpose of this discussion: Should a business suffer from the sins of the founder?

I ask this question because in our hyper partisan political environment at the actions of at least one enormously successful nonagenarian has been criticized for his political contributions.  While that may be fair, is it also fair to criticize and even boycott the company he and his partner were responsible for building into an industry leader?

Bernie Marcus, the 91-year-old self-made billionaire is a co-founder of Home Depot, the nation’s largest home improvement retailer.  Marcus has been vilified by progressives for having donated more than $7 million to the Trump campaign.  While that is certainly his prerogative it seems as though Marcus’ political contributions have led many Home Depot customers to make their purchases at its leading competitor, Lowes and other hardware and home improvement stores.  And that shift in consumer loyalty is certainly the prerogative of Home Depot’s customers.

Is it fair to punish Home Depot for the political donations of one of its founders who retired from the company in 2002 and who no longer has any operational control over the firm?  Is it fair to conclude that Bernie Marcus’ political preferences and the way he uses his huge fortune is necessarily a reflection of the way Home Depot uses its resources to support candidates?

More about that in a moment but first let’s consider how the behaviors, attitudes and philosophies of some business founders have affected consumer loyalty.

  • John Schnatter the founder and public face of pizza chain Papa John’s used the N-word on a conference call. Schnatter is no longer associated with the company.
  • Carl Karcher the founder of the Carl’s Jr. hamburger chain was a supporter of the John Birch Society and he supported banning LGBT people from serving in California public schools. Karcher died in 2008.
  • Chick-fil-A, founded by S. Truett Cathy, has a long history of donating to charities with anti-LGBTQ stances. Cathy died in 2014 but his family continues to control the company.
  • David Green the founder of the arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby is strongly anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and his company faced controversy for its one-time practice of excluding Jewish holiday items from its stores, a problem made even worse when a Hobby Lobby clerk notoriously told a Jewish customer “we don’t cater to your people”.

When we look at Papa John’s and Carl’s Jr. and compare attitudes of those companies with that of Hobby Lobby we need to recognize that the founders of those fast food chains are no longer a part of the companies they founded.  Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A continue to be led by its founder of the founder’s family.  So the question should be asked did the controversies associated with John Schlatter and Carl Karcher end once they no longer in charge?  And does Hobby Lobby’s founder who still controls his arts and crafts empire and Chick-fil-A’s Cathy family continue to hold to long-standing divisive attitudes?  And the provocative question facing their consumers is this – is it is fair to punish any business with damning social media calls for boycotts without having answers to those questions?

Let’s return to the question of Home Depot and its co-founder Bernie Marcus, one of the largest contributors to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  That support has created considerable chatter on social media with calls for Home Depot customers to find other places to shop for home improvement products.  Is Home Depot suffering from the (alleged) sins of its founder?  And if so is it fair?  And what is the responsibility of consumers to look at the way a company behaves today 18 years after the retirement of a founder whose political contributions have become such a divisive issue?

There are many ways to pull the curtain back and peek into the political contributions of public corporations like Home Depot.  One of the most authoritative sources is www.OpenSecrets.org The Center for Responsive Politics  https://tinyurl.com/y8f7vnbyClick on that link for an inside view into the support Home Depot has provided for political parties and their candidates.  As you look at this data it is important to note that the company itself did not donate, rather the money came from the organization’s PACs, their individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals’ immediate family members. Organizations themselves cannot contribute to candidates and party committees. Totals include subsidiaries and affiliates.

So what does the report tell us?  Like so many large corporations Home Depot has spread its political contributions to BOTH parties, to Republican AND Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.  The data invoked the image of a casino gambler who stands by the roulette table and places chips on BOTH black and red – the ultimate definition of hedging one’s bets.  No matter where the little white ball lands the gambler will win something even though he may have also lost some chips in his quest to become a victor.

Let’s look at some of the details.  Thus far in 2020 Home Depot’s political contributions for Congressional candidates shows that 52.66% went to Republicans; 40.66% went to Democrats; and 6.68% to others.  Among all Federal candidates the company contributed to Republicans 54.11% of the time and 45.89% of the time their support went to Democrats.

Thus far this year Home Depot donated $39,873 to Joe Biden and $37,657 to Donald Trump.  They’ve given $219,237 to the Republican Senatorial and Congressional Committees while contributing $54, 608 to the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees.

The moral of the story, such that you can use the word moral when discussing political contributions, is this.  Taking one isolated fact and trying to logically extend it to create a pattern of behavior may not always be prudent.  Yes, Home Depot’s track record does indicate a tilt toward Republican candidates.  But first, it is hardly breaking news that big business tilts right.  Second, nearly half of its political contributions went to Democratic candidates.  So this is by definition not a company with such a distaste for progressive campaigns that it has given exclusively to conservatives.

Contrast this with the strictly ideological donations of some of the other companies I described which definitely have no balance in their support for issues and candidates that do not agree with their philosophy.  The fact that certain companies have held hard lined views about abortion, LGBTQ rights and other divisive social issues when the reins of control are either still held by the founder or have been transferred to other family members who vow to honor the founder’s legacy makes them inviting targets for consumer backlash.  But when a founder is no longer in control and the new generation of leaders choose to take the company in another direction should those new leaders bear the burden of carrying the stigma or shouldering the blame for the decisions of those who came before them?

What is one to do then?  Make thoughtful, insightful and data driven decisions about where to spend your money.  Don’t assume that what was a distasteful practice by a company at one point in its history is necessarily the way that business continues to behave and believe.  Ask questions.  Do your research.  Use your own process for vetting.  Don’t believe everything you read or hear.  Facts are facts.  Use more time deciding on the merits of your consumer choices.  Be careful about spreading false or distorted information which can harm the reputation of otherwise good and decent businesses whose employees pay the ultimate sacrifice for a boycotted business.

Be a responsible consumer and take time to find out where the true north is on the ethical and moral compass of businesses in sectors such as agriculture, food, cosmetics; clothing products whose production is cruel to animals; companies that employ slave labor, child labor or unfair labor practices; companies whose production involves environmental or health degradation; products involved with oppression; companies that discriminate based on age, gender, sexual preference or race.

We are living in a time where technology that is at our fingertips can reveal information about businesses and politicians that enable us to make wise choices.  Use that technology and those resources to choose wisely.

A lethal national disease that no vaccine can cure

Americans are waiting eagerly for a life-saving vaccine to address the scourge of the Coronavirus epidemic which has claimed more than 125,000 lives and which has turned our world upside down.  We know that vaccines have been responsible for the successful treatment, and in some cases, the eradication of deadly and debilitating diseases.

Evidence exists that the Chinese employed smallpox inoculation as early as 1000 CE. In 1796 Edward Jenner’s early innovations eventually resulted in the eradication of smallpox.  Scientists worked for years to develop vaccines which liberated us from the effects of rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and other devastating health threats.

For all of these scientific successes there still remain other life-threatening conditions like AIDS in desperate need of a vaccine.  Though the work continues our hopes remain high that successful vaccines will one day be available for every disease, disorder and condition that kill so many of us each year.

And yet Americans are afflicted with a rapidly spreading disease for which no vaccine will ever be discovered.  A disease so insidious that it appears in the open for all to see as well as in the darkest of private places where it spreads virulently hiding in plain sight.  A disease that sometimes kills bodies but always kills souls.  And it is a disease that cannot be found in medical journals nor studied or taught in medical schools.  A disease which is discussed every day in homes, offices, places of play, places of worship and in our varied media outlets.

We all know about it.  Most of us recognize it as a genuine threat.  But few want to address it for what it is or even name it.  But I’ll name it right here and right now.  This dreadful disease is ISM.  Not a name you immediately recognize but with some quick prompts you’ll know the various versions of ISM.

Racism…Ageism…Ableism…Heterosexism…Misogynism…Sexism… Classism…Vigilantism…Antisemitism…these are just a few of our country’s underlying conditions of hate and discrimination that should be recognized as a national public health epidemic that is eating away at the body of our republic.  They are as toxic and lethal as any infectious disease.  They are slowly eating away at our values and our morals.  And yet they are not to be found in any catalog of diseases or conditions physicians and clinicians use to identify and classify threats to our health.

It’s not as though we haven’t passed laws and even amended our Constitution to attempt to ensure equal rights for all.  In fact we’ve done it a lot and we keep on doing it but somehow we haven’t been able to eradicate all of the ISM’s that afflict us and which cause so much pain and even death.

  • In 1863 we enacted the Emancipation Proclamation and two years later in 1865 we passed the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.
  • In 1920 we passed the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote.
  • In 1964 we passed the Civil Rights Act and the next year in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was enacted.
  • Title IX became law in 1972 assuring that there would be no discrimination based on sex in any Federally funded activity.
  • The Fair Housing Act passed in 1988.
  • In 1990 the Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land.

For all of these and other noble attempts which Congress has passed to protect the civil rights of all Americans and eliminate discrimination we continue to see these the rights and privileges bestowed on every citizen shredded every day.  The laws haven’t wiped out the ISM’s for one reason and one reason only – you cannot legislate morality, ethical behavior, and inclusion.  Laws alone will not wipe out prejudice, bias, bigotry and intolerance.  It is just not possible to punish people into submission and force them to embrace fairness, equality and justice for all.  You cannot legislate morality.

ISM’s have been a divisive disease afflicting our nation from the time of our founding.  And as America is about to celebrate its 244th birthday it is not enough to say what has been said so often: “We have problems and challenges but we have made so much progress.”  That may be true but it is awfully much like damning the problem with faint enthusiasm.

This year as we celebrate our Independence Day holiday, instead of igniting fireworks we should commit to igniting an unprecedented spirit of activism and advocacy toward the goal of wiping out the insidious disease that are the ISM’s spreading virulently throughout our society.

We know that unlike so many other diseases, these ISM’s are not congenital.  We are not born with hatred, discrimination, or bias.  These are learned conditions.  They are taught and modeled by family, friends and neighbors.  And worse yet, the worst behaviors and instincts pour out of the words and actions of our nation’s elected leaders.

The diseases that are the ISM’s that infect our society will not be conquered by a vaccine, or therapeutics, or surgery.  They can’t be prayed away.  And they won’t be eliminated by laws, rules and policies.  Only through an active, consistent, pervasive, and exhaustive effort to change our national ethos will we make the progress we need.

The events of 2020 be they political, economic, race-related, or resulting from the pandemic will hopefully take us to a national tipping point which, like most critically important causes, makes advances when Americans of good faith and good will unite around an agenda.  The progress we have made throughout our history by grassroots activism helped free the slaves, enabled women to vote, broke barriers to employment, education and housing and moved the needle closer toward the goal of making this a more perfect union.

Let each of us ignite the fire in our bellies and the justice in our hearts to conquer all the ISM’s that keep us from being a healthy America.

Police Departments Need Less Brawn and More Brain

Words have profund meaning both positive and negative. So when I read that nine members of the Minneapolis City Council on Sunday announced they intend to defund and dismantle the city’s police department I was both puzzled and disturbed.

I spent most of my career in the business of marketing and branding so I know how easy it is to oversimplify both a public relations problem as well as a substantive problem with the core values of an organization. I don’t want to fall into the trap of oversimplifying the real issues that the city of Minneapolis needs to deal with with respect to its police department. There is no doubt that the Minneapolis Police Department, like so many others, needs significant evaluation and assessment by an independent and objective entity. Such an analysis will no doubt reveal many systems, policies and practice changes that will need to be instituted. And the most challenging of all of these will be a change of organizational culture which for any business or institution is often the most difficult of all the challenges to deal with.

I can’t help but think that the multitude of problems with the American law enforcement sector should at least include the way in which they identify themselves as systems and personnel. The word POLICE is often defined as “the civil force of a national or local government, responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the maintenance of public order”. When used as a verb, POLICE means “maintaining law and order”. Maybe the law enforcement field needs to abandon the use of the word POLICE and begin thinking about themselves as being in the PUBLIC SAFETY business.

While POLICE certainly encompasses the notion of PUBLIC SAFETY too often and for too many it carries with it the idea that it is a group of armed, frequently macho, night club wielding forces rather than a collection of public servants who walk and drive America’s streets to do what their vehicles often say: “to serve and protect”. If more people believed that the POLICE were there to help them in the same way that FIREFIGHTERS and other first responders do then maybe the image of POLICE would turn from being a menacing and threatening band of civil militia to a group of women and men who are committed to helping maintain public safety… “to serve and protect”.

Perhaps our law enforcement organizations would do well to have more nerds and less knuckles. Officers who are as capable of using their brains as their brawn. It’s a choice and police need to choose wisely.

Community policing, as important a concept as it is, is not new. It is what policing was about when cops walked the neighborhood beat. Admittedly that became more difficult to do as urban communities gave way to suburban development in the post WWII period. But when cops lose touch with those they are supposed to serve the idea of community policing, the process of identifying community problems by police officers in co-operation with the community, is a slogan rather than a core mission value.

Maybe in part it is at least a little bit about branding. And if the POLICE brand is tarnished then maybe it is time to re-brand. So don’t defund police departments and certainly don’t dismantle them. Instead, reallocate the budgets of law enforcement organizations so that sworn officers and associated civilian staff can focus more on improving the safety of their communities and dealing with the systemic root causes of crime and civil unrest. And by all means, don’t expect that even the best run departments in the country can effectively do their jobs well unless and until the there is an equal commitment to bring about change in the judicial system, the way in which we incarcerate people, and the social safety net systems that have been torn to shreds allowing fragile and vulnerable people to fall through.

There is much to be grateful for in the American law enforcement system but it can’t be fixed by adding more testosterone and muscle. Law enforcement leaders need to think about ways in which they can be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Every American wants to live in a safe environment so let’s stop thinking about the inherent threats that police too often represent and start thinking more about the way officers devoted to public safety can be welcomed to their communities when they are seen as helping not hurting those they serve.

We Need Courageous Voices Now

I grew up as a very precocious child of the 1950’s.  I was as comfortable in the company of adults as I was with my peers.  And I seldom shrank from conversations where I often held a contrary point of view.  I would frequently push back against my family or their friends spoke and acted on the wrong side of social justice.  I was seldom shied away from calling out those whose language or points of view I found offensive.   I guess you could say I felt comfortable speaking truth to power, a Quaker concept first coined in the mid 50’s as a non-violent political tactic employed by dissidents.  I didn’t know about this phrase at the time and I certainly never thought of myself as a dissident.  I simply behaved instinctively to take a position or stand up for a principle I felt strongly about.

Throughout my childhood my father would often try to caution me from speaking up or speaking out saying “don’t be a Nachshon”.  He wasn’t a scholarly man and I have no doubt that he was unaware of what it meant to be a Nachshon or where that phrase came from.  He must have heard it from others and placed his own meaning on those words.  I have no doubt that he believed being a Nachshon was a pot-stirrer or a trouble maker.  I’m sure he had no understanding that Nachshon was actually an Israelite slave in Egypt who, together with 600,000 recently un-slaved Jews fled Egypt and reached the Red Sea.  With Pharaoh’s chariots behind them and the sea in front of them it was Nachshon who summoned all of the faith and courage he could muster to enter the sea only to watch the waters part allowing the Israelites to cross to the other side where they would watch as Pharaoh’s army drowned as the parted waters came together again.

Nachshon

Nachshon was no pot-stirrer or troublemaker.  He was a humble man who exhibited extraordinary courage to save a nation.  I wish my father had understood the difference which I would only come to learn about later in life.  Only when I discovered what being a Nachshon meant was I able to think of his admonition differently.  Only then did I realize that I was exhibiting the slightest glimpse of courage as I took a firm stance for what I believed in and what I thought was right.

The world has always depended on the Nachshons who, in every generation, have fought injustice and behaved courageously to do and say what was right at the time by speaking truth to power.

America has had countless Nachsons from the time of the nation’s founding, through all of its battles and wars, through times of economic calamity and when the fate of the democracy was imperiled.  Each of them, in their own way, has helped save the nation.  Sometimes from outside aggressors and often even from within.  That courage comes from many places.  One’s own sense of right versus wrong…good versus bad…a moral compass that always points to true north.  Those who have taken various oaths of allegiance have pledged themselves to “…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

In good times, the oath is a lovely sentiment.  But in times of strife, when our democracy is on the line, the oath is the very embodiment of the courage required to use everything in our individual and collective power to protect and preserve the nation.

America has been blessed with millions of courageous heroes.  Some wore stars on their shoulders…some wore stripes on their sleeves…some have been known to us all…more were only known to their family, friends and comrades in arms.

And from time to time, courage has been seen and heard in the halls of Congress.

In 1950, as McCarthyism began to divide Congress and America, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, issued her “Declaration of Conscience,” asking for bipartisan cooperation to protect national security. “It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections,” she said, “and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom.”  Senator Smith and others in Congress put their own reputations and careers on the line to put a stake in the heart of McCarthyism, a courageous action that helped preserve our freedoms and democratic way of life.

Margaret Chase Smith

Two decades later, on March 21, 1973, then White House Counsel John Dean, told President Richard Nixon that as a result of the cover ups associated with the Watergate break-in that there was a “cancer growing on the presidency” and that if it was not cut out it would kill Nixon’s presidency.  Dean’s willingness to testify before Congress about what he knew, and what he himself was implicated in, contributed to the end of the Nixon Presidency.

John Dean

The end, of course came, on August 7, 1974, when Republican leaders, Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Pa., made it clear to the embattled Nixon that he faced all-but-certain impeachment, conviction and removal from office in connection with the Watergate scandal.  The next evening Nixon addressed the nation and announced his resignation.

Goldwater et al

Courageous heroes are people who put others before themselves. Courageous people have good moral ethics.  They do things for the sake of being good, and not just a means to an end or to be rewarded for their good deeds.  Those with courage are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.  They are like Nachshon, often a humble person who reaches within themselves to save their nation and their way of life.

Today, America is at a crossroads.  Will we take a courageous path that will lead to the preservation of our democratic way of life or will fear of retribution overtake us as we succumb to the lesser angels who would take us on a path of havoc and morale implosion?

Crossroads of Fear & Courage

Who will be today’s Nachsohn?  Who will be brave enough to tell us that our nation’s values are in jeopardy?  Who will show the courage necessary to help stop us from what might be an inevitable future of isolation, intolerance, divisiveness, and hate?   Who from places of power are the unlikely voices who will speak truth to power?  Who will have the courage to do what it takes to bring an end to a regime that is endangering our democratic way of life.  Who will do what it takes that will help us hear the echo of Gerald Ford’s words when he said “our long national nightmare is over”?  When will the best interests of the nation become more important than political self-preservation?

We urgently need that courageous voice.  We need a modern day Nachshon and we need him or her now.  Nothing less than the ethos of our nation, the characteristic spirit of our culture, our beliefs and our aspirations depends on it.

Elijah Cummings

Dancing with angels