Stay Engaged: The Duty You Owe to Self, Family, and Nation

 

photo_2914_landscape_650x433
Image Credit: By Christopher Violet For Chronicle Review

I’m not sure about you, but my daily dose of news can be quite depressing. I find myself more and more reaching for the TV mute button. Generally speaking, political scandal and sensationalism are what sells, or attracts viewers, and so our media outlets just keep up a steady barrage. And we can’t get away from it either. Our morning shows give us the bad news over coffee; our 24 hour news channels keep our blood pressure elevated throughout the day; and then, for our commute home, the array of vitriolic talk radio programs stoke our road rage. All this negativity has become a major kill joy. So the question becomes, for any discerning mind wanting to stay informed but avoid stroking out, choking someone out, or dying from alcohol poisoning, how might we manage this?

I recently read about a guy named Erik Hagerman, who decided he was done with politics and all the bad news. He decided, literally, to cut himself off from pretty much all the news, starting the day after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. The crassness and depravity were just too much for him to bare. So for over a year now, Hagerman has been successful at staying joyously uninformed about what’s going on in the world. And, yes, he feels great! But he’s also officially clueless. So you understand, Hagerman lives by himself and has no children, so he’s got tight control over what he takes in, a situation, if you’re thinking about a similar project, to bare in mind. But then, we must ask, I think, if Hagerman’s way, a total black out of bad, unwelcome, or disturbing information, is really a good idea to follow?

I too have sometimes wished I could live as if the outside world didn’t matter, but alas that option isn’t realistic or very smart. Consider this: Hagerman bought 45 acres of land on the site of a former Ohio strip mine that’s been reclaimed by mother nature. He wants to restore this land and sees his efforts as “penance for the moral cost of his [news] Blockade.” His mission is to care for this land, restore it, and then leave the nature preserve for future generations to enjoy. Great! I love the idea. How green of him. But let’s consider the potential costs to Hagerman by not staying informed, and not being able to connect the dots. So Hagerman is working away on his land and not paying attention to the news or the political climate of his nation or county, and then suddenly he discovers, via construction vehicles, that a petrochemical plant has been approved next door to his land. His life’s work is suddenly looking pretty grim, ruined actually. While Hagerman was burying his head in the sand, his neighbors were rallying local votes and paying off politicians for the approved purchase of their land so they could get rich. Hagerman is now a victim, in large part, by his own making. Responsible citizens must be active, least they be unexpectedly victimized by forces (other people pushing their agenda or interests) working to impose their will at our cost. That is just how the world works, and is exactly what can happen when you don’t stay informed, be an active citizen, and, critically, vote at election time. Voting may not save you, but by not voting, and not understanding the issues when you vote, you’re surrendering without any fight at all.

But let’s back up for a moment. The reason our news outlets have so much disturbing news is because, well, there actually is plenty of disturbing news folks. With that said, there is obviously the spin that various media outlets put on the news—politically speaking. That’s the source of much anger and discomfort, I realize. But it’s not true that all media outlets put the same amount of spin on their news coverage or commentary. There actually are news outlets, journalists, and editors who try hard to preserve their intellectual and journalist integrity. You just have to pay attention and be open-minded enough to see that. But here’s a hint: If you think your favored news outlet, especially your preferred TV news outlet, is the best, most accurate one out there and all the others are bias, you’re probably living in a bubble, which makes for a good chance that you’re misinformed on a variety of issues. The question you need to ask yourself is: Do I care about seeking the truth and solving problems, making a better future for me and my family, while also reasonably protecting my interests, or am I just going to be a cheerleader for the politics (and tribalism) I uncritically prefer, regardless of the ruin it may inflict on me, my family, or my country? So many, it seems, prefer the bubble, the tribal identity and loyalty. And that’s one big reason why our current politics is so dysfunctional. We each, remember, have played some part in why this is happening.

So instead of the Hagerman way, or the passive acceptance of your own bubble, I suggest you adopt a deeply critical mindset about news and information in general. You probably think you’re doing that now, but for the most part you’re probably not thinking critically, you’re just rearranging your prejudices. We rarely take the time to step back from the words, the salesmanship, and truly examine the ideas thrown at us; to ask ourselves important questions and follow, honestly, the twisting path of its implications. Remember, that just about all communication is an argument of some type. Whether it’s a TV commercial or a talk show or a politician, all of them are trying to get you to buy something. Just like, hopefully, you wouldn’t squander your money on things you don’t need, don’t uncritically accept—or buy—what anyone or any organization, business, or political party is pushing. They know your weak points and they exploit them. They know most of you don’t have time to research the issues, and they’re counting on you being impulsive, a party loyalist, a tribalist hearing the whistle, and not necessarily knowing what your long term interests truly are. We’ve all heard the saying that “we need to have the courage of our convictions,” and this is indeed an important virtue. But I would argue that it’s equally important, if not more so, that we have the courage to question our convictions. This is a much rarer virtue from my experience. It takes a higher courage, which, unfortunately, seems in really short supply right now.

So first, my suggestion is that you don’t tune out from it all, but that you adopt the attitude that every organization, every politician or news station, to some degree, is always trying to sell you something. So, like a good consumer, you stay tuned in to the market, but with a critical distance from all the attempts to incite you, to provoke you to buy. Some of the goods are clearly junk or nickel plated nonsense. It’s easy to recognize, if you’re paying attention to the sales job and you know your own mind. But some of it is more pernicious and hard for us to discern, because it’s packaged to appeal to our emotions more so than our good sense or intelligence. Good salesmen know that capturing your emotions will often shut down that critical, often skeptical, debate going on in your head. Do your best to check your emotions and see their arguments and heated rhetoric for the simple sell job it is. Your job is to always ask yourself if what you’re hearing—being asked to buy, believe, or vote for—is truly the best thing, the higher thing….if, of course, that’s what you’re truly about in this life. That’s a question only you know the answer to.

Second, try hard to understand what your true interests are. I know most people think they know what their interests are, but my experience has confirmed over and over this is simply not true. Simply put, unless you can connect the dots you don’t know where they lead. And if you don’t know where they lead you’re just as likely to be supporting something that actually hurts you rather than helps you and your family. Try to connect the dots and do the best you can to see if the path those connections are making best serves you, your family, your community, and your nation. How many of us have discovered AFTER digging into the details of something, we’d long thought was benefiting us, our family, or our society, had actually been screwing us all along! That lesson applies not just to money and services, but to ideas and politics.

Stay engaged, know what’s happening, be deeply critical of information, be honest with yourself, and know what your true interests are. This is a duty you owe yourself, an obligation you owe your family, and your nation.

JFK & the “Enviable Distinction” of a Harvard Liberal Arts Education

The John F. Kennedy presidential library has a digitized copy of JFK’s 1935 Harvard University application form. It’s easy to read JFK’s application essay as a quickly done, fill in the space, drill. JFK’s chances of getting accepted were pretty good regardless, I’m sure. This twitter worthy essay would be laughed at by just about any admissions committee today, but, to be fair, there wasn’t much space provided on the application for for JFK to elaborate. Here is what JFK wrote:

The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.

April 23, 1935
John F. Kennedy

The only sentence, of the 5 total, that addresses the benefits of a Harvard academic education is the 2nd. JFK thinks Harvard can provide him “a better background” and “a better liberal education” than any other institution. It’s a sentence that provides a pleasant reminder of how important a Liberals Arts education once was (and to some degree still is) regarded by America’s wealthy elite families. I would argue that a Liberal Arts education is still the highest and best form of education personally, socially, and politically speaking, we can promote for the maintenance of a free society. (Watch this interesting TED talk on this subject.)

The rest of JFK’s paragraph is really about the importance of being a “Harvard man.” The “something definite” that Harvard had to offer JFK was that “enviable distinction” of being a graduate of an elite school. An education is, of course, more than just something you get in a classroom, it’s also a process of acquiring social skills and making important and influential connections.

For the most part, the world has come to expect from the liberally educated class a certain set of elevated behaviors and leadership qualities. Someone has to model both excellence and pathetic failure in the social realm, and like it or not the elites are typically those cast in those roles. The sneer of “Elitism” may be thrown, sure, but the truth is most of us long to be part of some type of elite, even if we act like it doesn’t matter to us. The whole point of being educated, really, is about quality. The quality of your own mind and soul and about recognizing quality in the things you see, hear, and taste. This type of quality education was the “something definite to offer” JFK was looking for from being a “Harvard man.”

Some Flying Memories

IMG_0989 2
Me on the wing of a Beechcraft Skipper. (Photo by Jeff Wills, circa 1988)

Like many teenage boys, after seeing Top Gun, in the spring of 1986, I wanted to be a naval aviator. The thrill of flying jets, of being a flyboy with those cool Ray-ban sunglasses, wearing those flight suit coveralls, and hanging out drinking and singing at officers clubs with nice looking women, captured my juvenile imagination: “That’s the life! Sign me up!” I mean, what a job!

Anyway, I was 19 years old, which speaks for itself, and I happened to live in a military town—Virginia Beach, Va. My dad, before I was born, had served in the Navy. The Hampton Roads region had approximately 15 military installations, to include the largest naval station in the world (Norfolk) and one of the Navy’s only 4 master jet bases (Oceana). I’d grown up and gone to school with a lot of military kids. For me, the military option just always seemed a natural one. If by chance that wasn’t going to work, my second option was attempting to swindle my way into a law enforcement job. My uncle and the brother of a former girlfriend were cops, and it kind of had a similar appeal and looked like fun (yeah…I was 19), and so that idea was also floating around. But getting to 21 to get hired for police work was taking too damn long and so Top Gun gave the military idea the momentum…for the moment.

Somehow I was able to talk mom and dad into letting me take flying lessons. Amazing swindle as I look back now. I sold my parents on the idea that if I already knew how to fly—had my private pilot license—my chances of being selected by the Navy after I graduated from college were much better. They bought it. Don’t get me wrong, being a licensed pilot certainly would help in getting picked up by the Navy, but there was obviously a lot more to it than that. My luck here, and thank God for it, was that I had wonderful parents who believed in me.

I can still remember driving over to Piedmont Aviation, which was part of Piedmont Airlines (bought out by USAir in 1989), to check out the pilot training school. Piedmont’s charter division, administrative offices, and private pilot training school, were at Norfolk International Airport, not too far from where I lived in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Piedmont Aviation had its own building and aircraft hangers on the south side of the airport, opposite the main terminals. Pulling up in my car to the Piedmont facility, I remember pausing to take in the word “Aviation” on the sign at the main entrance. My thoughts raced from the image of winning the Top Gun trophy to a ball of flames after slamming into a mountain. Oh, how the possibilities were expanding!

Piedmont Aviation: July 25, 1987
Piedmont Aviation at the time I was taking lessons there. (Photo by Scotch-Canadian’s, July 25, 1987)

This was a decision that could significantly change my life’s trajectory…or allow it to simply follow its set path, depending on what you believe. I had no idea, still don’t, what the future would hold, but ready or not, I was going to go ahead and nose dive into it. Youth just added a greater level of naiveté, a degree of enthusiastic ignorance, and a bit of angst over making something of your life. Looking back now, and currently having a 19-year-old son, I have a greater respect for the uncertainties and struggles he feels at this time in his life.

Entering the flight school on the 2nd floor, I was greeted by Joe Russo, one of the instructors. He was a tall, medium-build guy with salt and pepper hair and a dark mustache. He had the air of a man determined not to get killed by a student pilot in a fiery airplane crash. He’d spoken to me originally when I called to talk about taking lessons. Joe, as I recall, was a little late coming to the game. He’d started out doing something else, I don’t recall what, but then, say, 10 years into driving an ice cream truck (just joking) he decided he wanted to be an airline pilot. So here he was. For most of the instructors, Piedmont Aviation’s private pilot school was a way of racking up hundreds of flying hours toward the goal of becoming an airline pilot. Of course, surviving all those student pilots was a part of the challenge in getting to the cockpit of that Boeing 777. (Please note that both of my instructors survived and went on to fly for the airlines.)

Joe showed me around the school and discussed what was involved in getting my pilot’s license. At the time I remember thinking it seemed rather easy…yeah, 19 years old.

Joe: So, just to be sure, have you ever flown in a airplane?

Me: Sure. An airliner.

Joe: Did you like it?

Me: Hmmm, it made me a bit nervous.

Joe: So you’re a little scared to fly?

Me: Oh no. It’s not the flying that bothers me, it’s the crashing.

scan0040
Me making some calculations during ground school. (Photo by Jeff Wills, circa 1987)

And so it began. I took 1 to 2 lessons a week. Lessons lasted about an hour to an hour and a half and would consist mostly of flying time and/or some ground schooling. The hardest part of ground school was learning navigation. In the air, the hardest part wasn’t actually flying the airplane, it was learning how to land the aircraft. Taking off was nothing. You throttled up the engine to full power, keep the plane straight down the runway, and at a certain speed you started pulling back on the yoke. The plane would lift off almost effortlessly. After takeoff, you kept the power up, the angle right, and climbed out to your cruising altitude. Not that hard really. But landing was an entirely different story. Continue reading “Some Flying Memories”

John Steinbeck: This is What I Am About

steinbeck1

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. — John Steinbeck

Research Scientists—Heroes of Humanity

When I was a little boy I stayed with my maternal grandmother a lot during the summers when school was out. She was a strong willed southern Baptist woman who’d been raised on a tobacco farm near Danville, Virginia. Every night before bedtime we’d say our prayers together. We asked for the forgiveness of our sins, we gave thanks for all the Lord had given us, and we asked that He bless our family and friends. As far as I knew the requests were granted. I went to bed refreshed and got up the next day ready to load up with sin.

Since then the list of those I’m thankful for and those needing to be blessed has expanded—the friends & family list, well, that may shorten depending on what day you ask me. But the thankful list, for the most part, has clearly expanded. It should have for all of us I’d hope. I’m very grateful for the military personnel who protect our nation, for the police officers who protect us from each other, for the nurses who care for us, for the teachers who educate and help shape our children, and for our political leaders—the very few, that is, who deserve a divine blessing rather than a voodoo curse.

But recently, while watching a TV commercial (below), I was reminded of those heroes—and they truly are—who I’ve always respected and admired but who don’t tend to make the nightly prayer list for most of us…and they deserve to. We’re all thankful for the doctors and nurses who care for us and our loved ones: they provide life saving surgeries and treatments and provide medications that cure disease and allow us to live normal, healthy, lives. But what about the people who actually researched, discovered, and designed these life saving procedures and medicines? Our healthcare comes from “providers.” But what about the Givers to Humanity…the research scientists?

Research scientists are the one’s who actually gave humanity those life saving procedures and medications. Without the discoveries of these research scientists the lives of millions would have been shortened and the quality of life for millions more would have been much worse. Just think of Edward Jenner, who discovered vaccinations. Because of him millions of lives have been spared suffering and a shortened life. Think of Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease. How about John Priestly’s discovery of anaesthetics! How about Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin. How many people have we all known that would have died early deaths without insulin? And of course there are so many scientific discoveries—medical or otherwise—that I could list that are things we now take for granted but are things that without our world would be a much less forgiving and hopeful place. And most of these life giving and improving discoveries come to us from those dedicated to scientific discovery—from research scientists.

They are heroes of humanity. Let us be mindful and give thanks for them.