On Making a Graceful Exit

Fresno Bee, November 15, 2020

The political news reminds us of the wisdom of graceful exits.  Businesses need succession plans.  Individuals ought to prepare advance medical directives.  It is wise to learn to depart with dignity.  That means not clinging or lingering until the bitter end.    

In show business they say, “leave them wanting more.”  It is better for the show to end with an empty spotlight than to offer another encore to a thinning crowd.  How you exit determines how you are remembered. 

Knowing when to quit requires modesty, self-knowledge, and self-control.  Those who refuse to leave are greedy, narcissistic, and embarrassing.  The aging quarterback hanging on for another season is sad.  The scandal-ridden bureaucrat who refuses to resign lacks a sense of shame.  And the autocrat who clings to power is dangerous. 

Sages and saints have extolled the virtue of finishing well.  Saint Paul said, “the time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith.”  Paul expresses a kind of heroic resignation.  Do your best.  Stay strong.  And when the day is done, put out the light.

Socrates said something similar.  When he was sentenced to death, Socrates responded calmly and with dignity.  He said simply, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways.”  He didn’t rant or rave.  Nor did he challenge the legitimacy of the jury’s vote. 

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus pictured life as a naval cruise.  Sometimes your ship visits port and you get shore leave.  But when the captain says it’s time to sail, you must depart.  You can board the ship in a dignified manner.  Or you can be bound like a sheep and thrown on board.  The choice of a noble departure is up to you.

Those who cling often have a delusional self-image that is out of touch with reality.  Some people think they are the life of the party.  Others think they are the smartest person in the room.  Obnoxious boors ignore the yawns and eye-rolls of the crowd.  They are blind to the feedback of the world. 

Clingers often view themselves as irreplaceable and indispensable.  “She can’t live without me,” the clingy boyfriend says.  “They’ll never win without me,” the grizzled quarterback tells himself.  And the aging diva says, “my audience needs me.”

This is rationalization and projection.  The washed-up quarterback can’t imagine life without the team.  The clingy boyfriend can’t live without her.  And the aging diva needs the adoring crowd.

In reality, everyone can be replaced.  In fact, there are usually dozens of talented people waiting in the wings.  One of the problems of those who cling is that they don’t make room for other talent to shine.

Good parents, coaches, and mentors know when to get out of the way.  The same is true of good bosses.  A great pleasure of coaching and parenting occurs when you realize that the kids are alright without you.  If you’ve done your job, you are no longer necessary. 

Clinginess can be easily confused with loyalty and tenacity.  But loyalty and tenacity require moderation.  Too much loyalty is blind allegiance.  An excess of tenacity is mule-headed stubbornness.  The challenge of life is to learn to hold tightly until the moment when it is wise to let go. 

Benjamin Franklin said that fish and houseguests start to stink after a few days.  But we lose track of the time.  Clueless guests don’t notice that the party is over and the hosts are dozing off.  We often fail to notice that the expiration date has passed until the stench is overwhelming.

We need to learn to read the crowd.  When the audience starts yawning, it’s time to wrap things up.  When the crowd is grumbling and groaning, it is already too late.  It is better to leave early than to leave a lingering stench. 

We also need to keep better track of time and to learn modesty.  Our days are numbered.  We each play only a minor part in the drama of the world.  Our role is important but limited.  Our time on the stage is short.  Make the most of it.  And then depart with dignity.

Quit Complaining

In his victory speech Joe Biden said, “put away the harsh rhetoric, and lower the temperature.” He’s right. Let’s be done with grievance and aggravation.  Constant complaining cramps the soul and sickens society. 

My grandfather put this crudely. He’d often say, “quit your bitchin’.” A poet would say, “Let us not be aggrieved.”

The grievance machine runs on bile.  President Trump is complainer-in-chief.  He has griped and grumbled for years: from American carnage to a rigged election.  Conservative commentators copy his kvetching and complain about the “frauds and liars” in the liberal establishment. 

Of course liberals love lambasting Trump. They also lament his popularity.  After the election a headline in Politico said, “Democrats look at Trump voters and wonder, ‘What the hell is your problem?’”

All of this complaining causes heartburn.  Grievance produces grief.  Anger begets animosity.  And a small mind gets focused on small things.

There is a time and place for righteous indignation—but it is a narrow place and a limited time.  Genuine injustice ought to enrage us.  But rage can burn a hole in your heart if it is not transformed into creative activity.

Common sense teaches this.  Complaining about being hungry does not fill your stomach.  Whining about the wind won’t stop it from blowing.  But griping and groaning will certainly make you more miserable. 

Ancient wisdom traditions tell us to bear hardship without complaint.  They emphasize resilience and teach us to give up grousing.  The Stoics recommend taking things as they come without wishing them to be otherwise.  The Taoists teach us to stop fussing and fuming by learning to flow with the changes .

The wisdom of patient endurance and going with the flow is obvious.  But quiet retreat is not the whole answer.  The further lesson is to get to work.  We ought to transform resentment into resourceful action.  If the wind is blowing, close the window.  If you are hungry, cook something. 

Scoop Nisker used to say, “if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”  We might add, “if you don’t like what’s happening, then either fix it or shut up.” 

Partisanship feeds on outrage.  The headlines called this the most important election of our lifetime.  The Republicans claimed it was a fight against socialism, anarchist violence, and leftist totalitarianism.  The Democrats claim.ed it was a fight against fascism, authoritarianism, and malicious incompetence. 

This created historically high voter turnout.  But a third of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote.  While the partisans are screaming, a third of Americans opted out.  Maybe the screaming has turned them off. Some non-voters are ignorant and lazy.  But some are sickened by the vitriol of the public sphere.

Grievance is a sales technique.  It keeps us glued to our screens.  Clever partisans fan the flames of grievance and complaint. But this divides us and closes people’s minds.

Our complainer-in-chief is a master of the dark art of aggravation.  His vain boasts and vile complaints are mostly hot air.  But his followers love it.  His opponents love to hate it.  And the viewing public keeps tuning in. 

The Trump era is like spicy food.  It’s exciting.  But it disrupts the digestion.  Some people get addicted to the cycle of heat and misery.  Others can’t stand the smell it leaves behind.

It’s wise to stop binging on spicy stuff. Most people intuitively understand this.  It is difficult to live life permanently aggrieved. Active people have little time for grievance.  We have work to do, families to care for, and activities to enjoy. 

Of course, there is irony in complaining about complaining.  At some point, we just need to stop it.

The world’s traditions teach us how to lower the temperature. Instead of grumbling, be grateful.  Instead of complaining, have deep conversations.  And instead of pulling your hair out, put your hands to work.

Nonviolence and The 2020 Election

Fresno Bee, November 1, 2020

recent survey concludes, “22% of Biden supporters and 16% of Trump supporters said they would engage in street protests or even violence if their preferred candidate loses.” The good news is that majorities on both sides say they are willing to abide by the election result. But it is appalling that significant numbers of Americans are willing to consider violence. Now is the time for a primer in democratic values, nonviolence, and the rule of law.

Not everyone loves democracy. H.L. Mencken suggested that democracy puts the monkeys in charge of the circus. But in the U.S., we trust the electoral system as a nonviolent mechanism for resolving disputes and transferring power.

The connection between nonviolence and electoral democracy runs deep. Violent movements tend to be secretive and authoritarian, while nonviolent movements are inclusive and transparent. Violence tends to destroy liberty, while nonviolence affirms it. Violence breeds reaction and animosity, while nonviolence creates solidarity that builds community.

The advocates of violence are impetuous and impatient. Violence is unpredictable. And it rarely works. Riots, assassinations, and civil wars do not produce good outcomes. Political violence provokes backlash. It risks collateral damage. It causes people to dig in their heels. And of course, it is illegal.

Faith in the rule of law is foundational. Thomas Paine explained that in “absolute governments” the tyrant is the law. But in America, he said, “the law is king.” Paine was a revolutionary. The American system did begin in violence. But it was violence directed against the lawlessness of British tyranny.

The aspiration of the American revolution was for a stable, public system of law that would replace the reckless will of the tyrant. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton explained that “mutable” government is “mischievous” and “calamitous.” Instability “poisons the blessings of liberty.” A stable constitutional order can “break and control the violence of faction.” The cure for instability and violence is representational government, regular elections and the rule of law.

This system channels animosity into productive activity. If you did not win this time, get better organized and run again. In the meantime, hundreds of nonviolent methods can be employed. This includes petitioning the government and speaking out in public, as well as strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience. Nonviolence works when it is organized, strategic, creative, and tenacious. The American civil rights movement provides an example.

Nonviolence rests upon fidelity to law. The nonviolent protester is willing to go to jail to mount an internal challenge to the system. She does not seek to evade punishment or to create an alternative system out of the barrel of a gun. Instead she works to transform the system from within.

She also expresses solidarity with her co-citizens, including those with whom she disagrees. Violent law-breaking makes it impossible for arguments to be heard. It also puts co-citizens at risk. Nonviolence opens the door to reasonable discussion. It treats opponents as reasonable beings who can be persuaded. It seeks to convert rather than to coerce.

Ideally the bonds of friendship would hold us together despite our differences. But in this polarized era, it is hopeless to imagine that we could all be friends. We disagree about too much. That’s the reality of liberty. In a free country, we retain the right not to be friends. We are free to disagree, protest, whine, and complain.

But it is the constitutional system that guarantees our right to disagree. So when protests break out after the election, they ought to adhere to the basic principles of a system that allows us to assemble, to petition the government, and to speak freely.

Sometimes it does seem that the monkeys are running the circus. Our differences run deep. But we can find common ground in a shared commitment to liberty and the rule of law. Everyone involved in the electoral process has expressed an implicit faith in this system. To run for office is to agree to abide by the result of the election. To cast a ballot is to affirm that this is a legitimate process. And if you don’t like the result, you can pound your chest and howl and scream, as long as you do so nonviolently.

The Trump Prophecy and Related Absurdities

These are boom times for doomsday predictions.  Some folks view Trump as the Chosen One.   A survey from earlier this year found that 35 percent of Americans think we are entering the end times.  Only 37 percent disagree.  And this week, Pat Robertson predicted Trump would be reelected but that an asteroid would destroy the earth. 

These prophecies are laughable.  But people apparently believe this stuff.  So let’s take a critical look at Robertson’s prophecy in order to see why this kind of thing is nonsense.

The first problem is that while Robertson says Trump will win the election, he also encourages his viewers to vote.  But if God has revealed that Trump is going to win, then why bother to get out the vote?  The very idea of prophecy undermines free will and agency. 

After Trump is sworn in, Robertson says the country will be torn apart by civic unrest.  Robertson predicts five years of subsequent peace and final death by asteroid.  But don’t these predictions give us a reason not to vote for Trump?  Could we avert the unrest and the asteroid by voting for Biden? 

Proactive prevention is not on the prophet’s table.  Indeed, the prophets of doom seem to have a kind of malevolent hope (as I discussed in another column).  They appear to look forward to the chaos and to the end. 

Now let’s turn to the tortured Bible interpretation that grounds this prophecy.  Robertson cites snippets of text from Ezekiel, Isaiah, Thessalonians, and Matthew.  This textual cherry-picking is silly.  The prophecy jumps through the Bible, extracts a few ominous texts, and offers a wild and anachronistic interpretation.

If you study the Bible critically, this approach is absurd (see my What Would Jesus Really Do?).  Critical Bible study undermines the idea that there is a hidden message in the texts.  These texts were created by human beings.  They evolved over time in response to historical forces. 

Scholars suggest, for example, that Isaiah was written by more than one author (this may be true of Ezekiel as well).  These texts were written for an ancient Jewish audience during the period of Jewish exile in Babylon.  Paul’s letter to Thessalonians is written centuries later and addressed to a newly formed Christian church.  Matthew was written a generation later for an audience who had witnessed the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. 

The meaning of these texts is grounded in these contexts.  It is absurd to believe that ancient authors wrote these texts as a warning to people in 2020.  If anything, we should heed Matthew’s warning against false prophets (Matthew 7:15) and Paul’s suggestion that we test prophecy and hold fast to the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). 

And now, about that asteroid.  Ancient people feared objects being flung from the sky by angry gods.  But today, we know that there are no gods up there to do the flinging.  We understand that planets and space rocks orbit the sun at high speeds and sometimes cross paths.  We know that the universe is billions of years old.  Species have come and gone.  Some have been destroyed by asteroid impacts. 

But none of this was known to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Paul, or Jesus.  Nor did these ancient prophets know there were continents on the far side of the world.  So why should we believe that they made predictions about contemporary American life?

And why should we believe that God is the kind of being that gets angry and destroys His own creation?  The theological assumptions of prophetic Christianity turn God into a petulant bully. 

The theological critique of this kind of thing has been around for a long time.  One clear statement of the idea comes from Thomas Paine, whose thinking about religion and political life inspired the American Revolution.  Paine criticized “the prophecy-mongers.”  He said, “belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”

Of course, in the American system, people are free to believe what they want.  But critical thinkers are also free to criticize the absurdities of prophecy.  That’s the way enlightenment works.  It is a slow process of sifting and winnowing.  Enlightenment is not an asteroid that strikes like a thief in the night.  It is critical activity that requires daylight and human agency. 

Patient Advice for Living in Limbo

Fresno Bee, October 18, 2020

We are living in limbo. The pandemic rages on. The election hangs before us like a double-edged sword. We don’t know when or how this will end. We hold our breath, while COVID-19 haunts our dreams.

Election years typically end in limbo, with lame ducks and lost causes. This year, we have the added anxiety of a president claiming the election is rigged, while calling for his opponents to be jailed. The nation is worried about election unrest and violence.

Life in limbo is characterized by worry, impatience, dread, and despair. Picture the anxiety of waiting for the results of a cancer test. The answer comes as a relief, even if it is bad news. It is better to know than to wait.

Limbo is a haunted hovering. Time spent in limbo is nonlinear. Limbo is a gateway. But once we cross the threshold we get lost. The passage is obscured by spectral worries that cloud clear thought.

We get stuck in limbo, mulling things over. We brood and ruminate, fret and stew. But we make no progress. T.S. Eliot described this in Prufrock as a world of yellow fog and ether in which every moment contains a hundred indecisions, visions, and revisions. Such dithering frays the nerves and weakens the will.

The experience of limbo is not unique to the present moment. There is a general human tendency to waver and worry, defer and deflect. This is related to the difficulty we have in making commitments and saying good-bye.

Some people never really say “yes” or “no.” They duck the question and beat around the bush. But a firm “no” is a blessing in comparison to a vague deflection. A “yes” opens the door. A “no” closes one. But a “maybe” leaves us in limbo with the door ajar.

And when the party’s over, we stand in the doorway, making small talk in the dark. Perhaps we fear the solitude of the night. Phillip Marlowe said that “to say goodbye is to die a little.” A long goodbye is another kind of limbo.

The antidote is obvious. Breathe deeply and exorcise the ghosts. Take a stand. Close the door. Either turn back or go out and get moving. Remaining at the threshold won’t help you decide. Sure it’s wise to think things over. But deliberation is not avoidance. “Measure twice, cut once,” the saying goes. But after you’ve measured it’s time to cut. And once you begin, cut swiftly and true.

To procrastinate is to live on borrowed time. Eventually the bill comes due. A person can only wait so long. And then you are dead.

Virtue and happiness require action. Patience is crucial. Genuine patience is active and expectant, full of attention. Patience is not passivity, which deadens the mind. Patience is sustained energy directed toward the future.

The Roman poet Horace said that patience helps us endure what cannot be changed. Horace is also famous for saying “Seize the day” and “Dare to be wise.” He said a person who passively waits for wisdom is like an idiot standing beside a river, waiting for the water to stop before daring to cross. Life is short, Horace said, and we can’t trust tomorrow. So plunge on in.

To live is to get your feet wet. Sometimes the river knocks you off your feet. But it is better to swim than to wait. Those who dip their toes never leave the shore.

This may sound like a call for blind action — but it’s not. One of the dangers of limbo is that it can give way to the panicked urge to run and rage. As the tension builds, there is a risk of explosion. But blind action makes a splash without making a difference.

We need to be calm and patient. Worry changes nothing. Fight the urge to panic. This limbo won’t last forever. At some point the ether will wear off and the yellow fog will lift.

Patience is realistic and engaged. Rather than battling ghosts, roll up your sleeves. Rather than pausing at the doorway, get moving. Stay focused on kindness and courage. Stop holding your breath and saying maybe. There is work to be done.