Friday, July 31, 2009

Post No. 130: Whose Life is it Anyway?

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We recently generated two posts, You’ve Got to Find What You Love, a speech by Apple’s Steve Jobs, and P.J. O’Rourke’s Unconventional Advice. Both were directed toward our target audience, college students. We suggested some things for them to consider looking down the road.

We try to stimulate thought amongst our young citizens, when their worldviews are still malleable. Yesterday, a couple of us participated in a brainstorming session for a non-profit organization about which we previously wrote.

B.E.S.T. addresses issues affecting at-risk young men. We highlighted the efforts of its founder as an example of how private citizens can do something meaningful for their communities and society.

Before the meeting, we bounced around ideas. We recalled that we Baby Boomers had such idealistic goals. We were going to change the world, right all wrongs, speak the truth (which would set us free), and do nothing but good, positive things in life.

In addition, we planned to transform the world, perhaps through astral projection or Transcendental Meditation, to a “kinder, gentler” place. One of us recalled pledging to become a brain surgeon following JFK’s death.

It didn’t exactly turn out that way. It’s been said that life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. If anything, we’ve been surprised at how many Boomers have transitioned from card-carrying liberals (and committed to “living off the fatta’ the lan”, like Lennie in Of Mice and Men), to hard core conservatives. (Why have so few traveled the opposite road?)

When P.J. O’Rourke was asked about his transformation from liberal to conservative, he blamed it on his daughter. Upon realizing she was vulnerable, and a potential target of all sorts of nasty forces, he resolved to protect her, at any cost.)

We know hundreds of business people, accountants, engineers, investment bankers, lawyers, and doctors, who abandoned those dreams and principles. We lived comfortably, and did little that we can identify in pursuit of those principles, other than occasional pro bono work.

(A prominent activist in speaking to a professional group once lamented that some of the best and brightest were in the audience, and members of a profession whose primary goal was making money for themselves and their corporate clients.)

Last week, we heard a report suggesting that today’s youth are possibly skipping the self-delusion phase. Far fewer minors, when asked, expressed interest in pursuing goals which might also “give back to the community.”

We’re not sure what to do with that. Virtually every generation seems to think those succeeding will go to hell in a hand basket. After 13,000 years, we still have faith in humankind’s ability to adapt, use our bigger brains, and “be guided by the better angels of our nature.”

We heard 2 stories recently. The first involved a Sudanese woman, who is facing fairly severe punishment. She and some other women committed a crime - wearing trousers in public. Some immediately pled guilty, and only received 10 lashes.

The remaining subject chose to go to trial. She faces a possible $100 fine and 40 lashes. She’s not a professional activist, and had some UN position which would have allowed her to side-step the charges.

Instead, she chose to resign, and waive her immunity.

The other story revolved around the mayor of Kandahar, Afghanistan, one of the more violent cities on Earth. He enjoyed a comfortable, middle class existence in Washington, D.C. for 25 years, until he was motivated to return to his native country and “make a difference.”

He put himself at risk, and returned to the heart of the violence. He said we’re all going to die from something one day, be it cancer, a heart attack, or a car accident. He questioned whether there was any real difference between dying from violence doing something in which you believed, and dying from one of the other causes.

That caused us to pause.

While a 25 year old might see lots of differences, those of us 55 and beyond might reflect on what we’ve done, and whether we’ve made a ”real” contribution.

The Logistician and his best friend were sitting at a side walk cafĂ© in the Copacabana in the late 1990s, reflecting on what, if anything, they had accomplished... and whether it had been of any benefit to anyone beyond themselves. They had always hoped to able to say that they did something more than “raise a good family.”

The founder of the at-risk male youth non-profit, the Sudanese lady, and the mayor of Kandahar might be better examples of those we should hold up as role models in our society, than the folks to whom we usually direct our plaudits.

Whose life is it anyway? We might all consider making it more than just our own.


  1. The reason that P.J. O'Rourke is full of soil nutrient is that he apparently believes that by changing his own behavior he can somehow provide his daughter with a safe, secure life by proxy. This is absurd. If you want your offspring to be conservative, the best thing you can do is remain a flaming liberal. When they rebel against you in adolescence (as they will, and should) they will reject your values and tend toward conservatism. Once this act of separation has been effected and the kids have been their own persons for a few years, they will make their own value judgements, based on their own experiences--not based on yours.
    P.J. O'Rourke became a conservative because that's where he saw the lucrative niche; he's just one more tired 'sixties sell-out.

  2. I must be way different. The way I think a person can "make a difference" is one person at a time. You never know when you will make a difference, or change the course of a person by how you treat them. When I was in 3rd grade I had a teacher that encouraged me in an interest my parents did NOT encourage me in. It changed me forever. Not in a huge way, but it changed me. For the better too. You just never know.

    Question for Rodak, can you define "rebel"? Do you mean they do things specifically to make their parents angry or they just behave differently from their parents believe because they actually believe differently?

    what is the purpose of the rebelling?

  3. It's just part of growing up and becoming one's own person.

  4. Holly:

    Good to hear from you again. There is no one way to "make a difference" or give back to the community. One of the Senior Fellows here at the Institute, the Optimizer, participates in many one on one activities. On the other hand, the Logistician frequently notes that he does not do individuals, and prefers to assist groups. We need both in society.

    What we were suggesting is that we not forget the role that each of us can play in improving society, and we focused on two individuals, the Sudanese woman and Afghan mayor, who placed their physical well-being at risk to achieve something positive.

  5. Holly--
    If you have to ask, you've apparently never raised a couple of teenagers, and can't remember what it was to be one yourself. Listen to the lyrics of a few songs that are popular with adolescents and you'll soon understand what "rebelling" is.


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