November 2010

SETTING OUR MORAL COMPASS

Nick was a runty kid with a certain innocence and naiveté that made him likable.  His hands were usually stuck deep in his black hoodie when we talked about how he landed in the ‘system’.  His family was barely functional and he spent a lot of time running the streets with a gang of older guys until he got arrested.  Now he was back in school regularly and doing community service at the ‘Y’.  The director there liked him and took him under his wing.  The juvenile court judge saw something in him too and asked if we could help keep him out of the detention center.  I was working in family therapy at the time and his case was assigned to me.  Nick’s offences were auto theft and attempted armed robbery, serious enough for a fourteen year old kid.

Nick and Phil stole a beat up old station wagon from a shopping center.  It was day time, the keys were in the ignition and the windows were open.  They drove around for half an hour before starting back to return the car to the parking lot, that’s when they spotted the girl with a purse.  She was thirteen and from Nick’s school.  Phil gave Nick an unloaded plastic starter’s pistol and told him to get the girls purse.  She beat him over the head with it and he crumbled onto the sidewalk.  That’s when the police pulled up. 

After months of talking Nick finally realized that taking a car without the owner’s permission was stealing, even if he intended to return it.  Stealing, he thought, was when you take something that isn’t yours and you keep it.  As for the attempted armed robbery, he had a hard time seeing he was guilty since he was the one beaten to the ground.  I thought I had a breakthrough one day when he admitted, “It was the stupidest thing I ever did, I just don’t know what I was thinking.” Great, I thought, he understands.  Then he added, “After all, what’s a thirteen year old girl have in her purse that’s worth taking”.

Finally Nick had his epiphany.  One day he said, “So basically it’s all about right and wrong and everything’s got something to do with that”.  Fair enough, I thought, that’s basically it.  Nick still had his problems but here he was trying to set his moral compass a few degrees at a time back on course. 

I thought of Nick the other day as I watched a high ranking government official state quite frankly, “There are no good solutions” while talking about the war in Afghanistan.  Another added, “There’s no such thing as the best option. There’s only the best option given the circumstances of a particular situation.”  I wondered if they had studied morality and reasoning in Nick’s neighborhood.      

Quite often, life is about questions of what we ought to do. If we try hard enough, a solution should become apparent.  Whether we are talking about the war, the economy, medical ethics, government accountability, family challenges, health care, affordable housing or ecological concerns, the dilemmas seem unceasing -- most answers have their own set of problems. We console ourselves by acknowledging that our response may not be the best, but it’s the best we can do for now.  Today there are enough dilemmas to keep anyone’s moral compass spinning.  

It’s voting time again.  This round of mid-term elections seems to be generating a lot more interest than previous campaigns.  As a polling place for two precincts of Ward 20, we get to see and hear a lot of the local politicians, they’ve been here twice in October for primaries and they’ll be back in November for two more rounds.  They campaigned at our October Bazaar.  We shook their hand and took their pamphlets.   Of course, the media is saturated with campaign news and analysis, debates and ads.  The candidates raise a lot of interesting questions as they campaign either against unkept political promises or for a reverse and return or for a continuation of existing policies.  I like to filter their rhetoric through the sieve of classic ethical and moral principles as outlined in documents like the Beatitudes.  So far, very little is passing through.    

Someone sent me a link to a Web site called the Virtues Project, which is devoted to virtues and their importance in our lives; I was surprised at just how many virtues there are.  The project asks how often we focus on the question “What ought we to do?” and neglect its necessary counterpart “Who ought we to be?”  No matter how complicated life’s questions get, the only way to get through all of it is by reminding ourselves of the Biblical imperatives to show compassion, to be generous, to be understanding and tolerant, to be gracious and thankful -- the virtues that are at the core of our Orthodox Christian tradition and religious experience.  The solution to difficult problems often needs to start with the question: Who does the Gospel ask me to be?

By changing the starting point, our attention goes from one of problem-solver to one of relationship, not just with others but with God and creation.  With the switch of a word, being instead of doing, the choices we make are grounded in our own vocation to be virtuous people, to be purposeful and responsible, to be trustworthy and forgiving, and to be persevering and courageous.

To care about a perpetrator, for example, generates a very different response than simply dealing with the offense.  To have compassion requires listening.  To be creative is to dare to see things in new and different ways.

The Virtues Project website reminded me that language shapes character. “The way we speak and the words we use have great power to discourage or to inspire.  It is a frame of reference for bringing out the best in ourselves and in others.  It helps us to become the kind of people we want to be.”  I’ll be thinking about it when I go to the voting booth this month.  I think that’s what dawned on Nick when he finally figured out that who he was and what he did had something to do with right or wrong. 

 

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