Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Post No. 171b: Whose Life Is It Anyway?

© 2009 and 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Back in 2009, we generated a post in which we made reference to Ghulam Hamidi. Hamidi, an Afghan national, lived in Washington, D.C. for close to 20 years, before returning to war torn Afghanistan, to become the Mayor of Kandahar. In our post, we spoke of people who took risks to pursue something of value for society, and to make statements. At times, those risks may be significant, and they may be deadly. Yesterday, the risk was deadly for Hamidi. In light of this development, we are re-posting our original post.

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. 'Spector,

    I have never been fully able to distinguish the subtle difference between "someone who tries to make a difference" and "martyr", but I'll bet that you can provide a distinction. As a semi-spoiled, not-quite-middle-class American, the appeal of martyrdom has ever eluded me . . .

    The Independent Cuss

  2. You know Independent Cuss, virtually every day, someone uses a word which we thought that we understood, and we question our understanding of the word forcing us to open us the dictionary.

    Despite the fact that many of our friends consider "mother" and "martyr" to be synonymous, our dictionary reads: 1. One who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce religious principles; 2. One who makes great sacrifices or suffers much for a belief, cause, or principle; 3a. One who suffers greatly; 3b: One who makes a great show of suffering to arouse sympathy.

    We strongly suspect that martyrdom is situational or contextual. There are probably more martyrs in Egypt and Syria these days than perhaps all of the U.S. We suspect that sometimes ordinary people are driven to martyrdom.

    Most of us, especially in post-modern, industrialized countries, probably just live "ordinary lives."

  3. We'd be curious to hear from our Baby Boomer readers as to whether in their youth and period of idealism, they had plans to be "something different" than what they ultimately became, and the factors which came into play over the years. That might be instructive, particularly for our readers still in college.

  4. Inspector I'm impressed with B.E.S.T.!!! Kudos to you and everybody who participates!!!

    To answer your question as to why have so few traveled the opposite road? There's no money to be made and no influence to gain! If gambling can be addictive, then in my view the hunger for more money and power can be as well! At that stage things like: right all wrongs, speak the truth, and do nothing but good are viewed as obstacles.

  5. Thanks much Wsteffie for your compliment regarding B.E.S.T. We will pass on your regards to the Founder. We should note that B.E.S.T. is experiencing some difficulties during the current global economic recession; however, Ms. Small remains undeterred.


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