• Sunday Essay #3: 'Tis the Season for Compassion

    • Posted on Dec 17, 2017

    Sunday Essay #3 is also today's Courier Column--and for a change, almost no political sniping.  This holiday season amounts to solid case for compassion, and I try to underline that here.  


                Of all the virtues decent people try to live by—balance, compassion, integrity, forgiveness, fairness—compassion strikes me as most important.  This holiday season it deserves special attention, since it seems to be waning.      

                The New Testament’s Christ and Christmas stories amount to studies in compassion, beginning with the manger and ending on the cross.  Even non-Christians admit that the story reveals and embodies compassion.    

                Poor and outcast Joseph and soon-to-be mother Mary struggle to find shelter, then give birth in a lowly barn’s animal stall.  That child grows up to be a world spiritual leader, only to suffer crucifixion followed by redemption, thankfully. 

                It all centers on compassion, which means co-suffering. Even the secular among us who understand the story suffer along with Christians and their savior.    

                These days, even with rampant commercialization, the root of our holiday season is still giving. And what is giving at its best but compassion? 

                Thoughtful giving requires understanding, and the best gifts become lifelong memories. That first bike, which took you everywhere in style.  Or your first handsome suit or formal gown, which made you feel closer to adulthood.  Or that generous gift certificate which allowed you to own something you could never afford.  All were gifts that required a modicum of thoughtful compassion from the giver.   

                Don’t underestimate the joy of giving and receiving gifts rooted in compassion.  

                At its best, the holiday season amounts to a celebration of compassion. Locally, the Cedar Valley Food Bank and the Cedar Valley Hospice remain among the most deserving, their missions centering wholly on compassion. 

                When we look out for each other, as the season celebrates, we thrive.  In fact, when we act for the good of others, we inevitably act for the good of ourselves. Unless you’re the “before” Scrooge, it feels good to give. 

                 Charles Darwin drew that very conclusion as he studied how species evolved. He noted that “. . . the social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of his fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.” 

                The great biologist believed that “survival of the fittest” worked as the evolutionary engine because the “fittest” were those who cared for others as much or more than themselves. That’s how a species ultimately survives—the Golden Rule in practice.  

                For Darwin, it was never a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survived.  

                Currently we seem to be ignoring that lesson and splitting into “us” against “them.”    Tribalists rail against diversity, sure that we do better by supporting and protecting only our own.  This can’t last, since humans are interdependent, now globally so.     

                Ultimately, “me first” believers risk becoming egomaniacs and narcissists who either deny or avoid feeling compassion. In the long run, they become outcasts. Dictators and authoritarians discover, sooner or later, they have no friends and nowhere to go. 

                ‘tis the season for compassion, for building bridges.  Not walls.  










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    • Christmas
    • Holidays
  • Donald Trump as Anti-Mensch or, This Too Shall Pass

    • Posted on Dec 10, 2017

    My second Sunday essay, this time on soothing our Trump-jangled nerves.  


                Graeme Shimmin, a British science fiction novelist and blogger, recently tackled a challenging question on the Quora web site: If you are a passionate anti-Trump type person, what, if anything, can you say positive about our current president?

                It had me stumped.  But Shimmin comes through. 

                He says: “. . . the only genuinely positive thing I can say about him - he is, in a way, impressive.”

                Shimmin continues, “God knows, he’s not wise. He’s not got any great insight either—his tactics are the same old playbook a hundred demagogues have used. He’s not even masterful, a sharp operator, in the way some other politicians are.

                No. None of those things are what is impressive about him.

                What he does have though, to an almost unparalleled degree, is no inhibitions - there are no depths to which he will not stoop. No blow is too low. No barb too cruel.

                He has risen to the position he has because everyone who tried to stop him had the same problem - simple human decency was a thing that meant something to them.”

                Bravo, Mr. Shimmin. I bow to your wisdom.    

                Good old “decency”—the trait that most of us count on in others that makes them dependable and trustworthy—seems to have gone missing in Donald Trump.

                However, “stupefying” works better for me than “impressive.”  It means to “put into a stupor,” and that’s exactly what Trump’s false accusations, gibes, insults, and slurry nicknames seem to have incurred in enough voters to make him President. 

                They voted for him while in a stupor, numbed by his bottomless indecency.

                Before we get too discouraged about a widespread shift to indecency, let’s remember that Trump lost the November popular vote by a greater margin than any other American President.  Some 2.8 million more voters voted for Hillary Clinton than Trump. 

                Yet there remain millions of stupefied voters mesmerized by this sad loser of an egomaniac.   

                How can this be? For starters, any population contains a percentage of rock-throwers, angry at whatever. Anarchists, nihilists, demagogues, and doubt-free ideologues. They’re always right in their minds, and they love Trump, who’s shameless in the service of their beliefs.  

                Like Trump, they’re anti-mensches. 

                Mensch, an ancient Yiddish word, deserves attention.   Peter R. Swank defines “mensch” as a person having admirable, noble, or dignified characteristics, such as fortitude, responsibility, and firmness of purpose.  (see Peter R. Swank’s “Qualities of a Menschkeit” at https://www.peterswank.com/menschkeit
                Swank goes on to list forty qualities of a mensch, and here are his top ten:
    1. Strength - physical, as well as of conviction
    2. Honor - Every Mensch has a Code of Honor.
    3. Integrity - A Mensch is honest with firm moral principles; his word carries the weight and trustworthiness of an iron vault.
    4. Loyalty - fierce, to his fellow Menschs, loved ones, wife, children, mother, and family
    5. Sacrifice - A Mensch's personal desires are subordinated.
    6. Uncompromising Ethics - A Mensch always strives to do what is right.
    7. Intelligence - not necessarily academic, but raw intelligence
    8. Control - A Mensch has the ability to forge/manhandle/bend a situation towards his will; if not in control, a Mensch will find a way to be in control. Alternatively, a Mensch will relinquish control in order to be in control.
    9. Stoicism and Toughness - high pain tolerance; absence of complaining.

    10.  Fairness - A Mensch always considers all sides.


                So Donald Trump and many of his followers stand as America’s anti-mensches.

                How I wish we could just ignore them and hope they’ll go away.  But we can’t yet do that, though their comeuppance is surely coming.

                We can, however, remind ourselves as often as possible:     

    (1)  Trump remains the most unpopular President in U.S. History.

    (2)  Leading lights in the Republican Party have roundly condemned him and continue to do so. 

    As reminders of this point, here’s Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, speaking to his colleagues in the Senate: 

                “I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership. Regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

                He continues: 

                “The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, and the flagrant disregard for truth and decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have been elected to serve. None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal.”

                Flake also speaks directly about Trump’s anti-mensch behavior:

                “Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.”

                And from Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker: 

                "Look, except for a few people, the vast majority of our caucus understands what we're dealing with here ... of course they understand the volatility that we're dealing with and the tremendous amount of work that it takes by people around him to keep him in the middle of the road."

                "I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it's a situation of trying to contain him."

                "I don't think he appreciates that when the President of the United States speaks and says the things that he does, the impact that it has around the world, especially in the region that he's addressing."

                "Trump may be setting the US on the path to World War III."

                 From former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, three powerful quotes:  

                “Dishonesty is Trump's hallmark: He claimed that he had spoken clearly and boldly against going into Iraq. Wrong. He spoke in favor of invading Iraq. He said he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11. Wrong. He saw no such thing. He imagined it. He's not of the temperament of the kind of stable, thoughtful person we need as leader. His imagination must not be married to real power."

                "Think of Donald Trump's personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics. We have long referred to him as 'The Donald.' He is the only person in the entire country to whom we have added an article before his name. And it wasn't because he had attributes we admired."

                "Here's what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He's playing the members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat."

                Finally, from Arizona Republican Senator John McCain: 

                "To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain 'the last best hope of earth' for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

                3. Let us remind ourselves daily: 

                This too shall pass




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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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