The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

argumentIn the fall of 1992, I had the occasion to write my kids, nice, and nephew about the upcoming election. Four were voting for the first time. Like this coming election, there were three candidates—Republican George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton, and Independent Ross Perot. Then, as now, feelings ran high. It is amazing, twenty-four years later, that the political environment has not improved; if anything, the division has widened. I can’t help remember Lincoln’s famous words in Springfield before the Civil War: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” It is time for all of us to take a step back, draw a deep breath, and remember those citizens who disagree with our opinions are not our enemies. All of us love America and want the best future for our children.

A Message to My Family—1992

This election Michael Shannon, Justin and August will vote for the first time in a Presidential race. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to see where our family fits in the political spectrum. With three generations, we form our own little cosmos. And, like the real world, there’s quite a bit of divergence. We have Bush fans, Clinton fans, and Perot fans. Depending upon the issue, we agree with each of the three contenders. I imagine our decision will boil down to the one we think best serves our interests.
The grandparents are rightly concerned about retirement factors—Social Security, Medicare, and taxes— while parents worry about the security of their jobs and income taxes. The youngest generation, not yet married with the responsibilities of parenthood, care about more esoteric issues such as the National Debt (They will be the ones who must pay the piper!), racial tensions, and the environment.
However, despite our disagreements and different priorities, we agree that the political process and the prevailing strategies to destroy one’s opponents doesn’t help voters understand the issues, the candidates’ positions, or even their records. It seems to me that something as important as the future direction of the country deserves better.
I’m particularly struck by the mean-spirited nature of the process. None of the candidates or their party show any toleration for opinions that differ from their own. And that attitude extends to the way we as citizens react to one another. Rather than listening to another’s viewpoint, i.e. stand in their shoes, or granting that their position might have some merit, we attack their intelligence, their morals, or their heritage. Political debates, like moral issues, generate heat with little light. Too many people see democracy as a chance to push other people around for their own benefit.
Given the problems facing the world and America coupled with our inability to agree on the most simple issues, I wonder what the future holds for our children and our children’s children. Most of all, I wonder, “What can I do about it?” I will vote this fall and I hope each of you will also. Whomever is selected as our President will have my prayers and support.

Life is What We Make It

My friends, Bob and Nelly, are the parents of a severely autistic child who is expected to need care for his entire life. I can only imagine the financial and emotional burden they carried, yet I have never heard either complain. I’ve known Bob since grade school. He was constantly in trouble with teachers, always in detention or getting licks from the principal because he couldn’t or wouldn’t follow rules. While not rich, Bob’s family was comfortable, getting a new car every couple of years, flying away to California for vacations, allowing Bob to pick the college of his choice without concern about cost. Bob, I believed, was destined to be one of Life’s winners. After college, he graduated from law school and married Nelly who was from a similar economic background. They waited until their early thirties to have a child, wanting to be sure they could provide all of the comforts they had enjoyed to their own children. When little Richard was born, they were ecstatic. In their opinion, life couldn’t have gotten any better. When their world fell apart two years later with the diagnosis of autism and the uncertainties that Richard faced, their faith in themselves, each other, even God, was shattered.
As might be expected, everything about their life and expected future changed. For a time, things were very, very rough. Bob’s law practice suffered, their marriage was under strain as each tried to understand the cause of their son’s autism. As the extent of Richard’s disability became apparent, worries about money intensified. Nelly, as a stay-at-home Mom, seemed to bear the worst of it, spending every day with Richard, chasing every “cure”, spending hour after hour on the latest recommended therapy. By choice, their activities outside of a few close friends and family members virtually stopped. As for Richard, he gradually improved as he grew older, but never to the point of independence or even where they could leave him unattended without worry.

Acceptance & Change

But, over the years, Bob and Nelly changed, almost imperceptibly at first but more apparent as the months went by. Instead of worrying about the future, they began to embrace the present, facing each day as it came knowing that whatever trouble, tragedy, or even triumph was temporary and would pass. They learned to look past Richard’s disability to his strengths – his constant good nature, his unfailing willingness to forgive any slight or slur, his constant joy as he listened to his favorite songs over and over. More importantly, they learned to forgive themselves and to be happy once again. Bob’s legal career never fully recovered, but neither seemed to care about the lost income and the prestige that accompanies wealth.
As I struggled with my own problems, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened? What had they discovered that I was missing? When I finally broached the subject with Bob, he simply replied, “I learned that I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried or how much I wanted, fix Richard’s autism. Whether it was my fault, or Nelly’s from something we inherited from our folks or consumed during our college years, of any one of a thousand reasons didn’t make any difference since I couldn’t go back and change it. The only thing that I could do was change how I felt and what I did. So I did.” He smiled. “Life is what we make of it, not what somebody else does.”

Can a Zebra Change Its Stripes?

Zebra pregnant front view looking cutoutOften, there is some grain of truth in old sayings and myths. That is why they persist over time and generations. As I considered my own situation, I realized that one of the first questions I needed to answer was whether I could truly change old habits and patterns of thinking, if wanting to have a different life and future is really sufficient to make the effort successful. Perhaps the desire alone is not enough and there are factors that preclude some people from ever being satisfied with their achievements or happy.
Skeptics have always questioned whether people, particularly adults, can change, leading to such idioms as

“A Zebra can’t change his stripes.”
“Old habits die hard.”
“You can’t teach an old dogs new tricks.”
“The Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“The sins of the Father are present in the son.”

When we look around us, we see the world and our environment constantly changing. Humans are the result of millions of years of evolution, generation after generation of subtle differences. Everything changes all of the time, sometimes too slow to recognize but occurring never-the-less. We are biologically predisposed to change, to adapt to our environments just as we influence our surroundings to accommodate our needs more efficiently. This propensity is apparent in the way our brains work, the influence of memory on our outlook, even the impact of emotions on our behavior.
This conflict between constant change and the paradoxical tendency of people to resist change led me to research how the human brain works, the influence of genetics upon our decisions, and why some people are able to make massive changes in their lives and others try, but fail.

Is Success Predestined? Failure Inevitable?

Each of us is both a victim and a beneficiary of our ancestors and our environment. Based upon our genetic tendencies, reinforced by the environments in which we mature and live, each of us develops stereotypes and habits to respond to events and conditions. Our personality reflects our characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving as seen by others. To understand better who we are as well as develop techniques to change, it is important to understand how our brains works, what if any limitations we might inherit from our parents, and how memory affects our decisions as well as the connection between our personality and our mind. As British psychiatrist Dr. Susan Greenfield says, “personality” is how others see you while “Mind” or “Self” is what it feels like to be you. In other words, your “mind” is the emotions you feel at a particular time and location. Even though outside events trigger negative emotions, how we respond to them – their impact and duration – is within our control.
Failure is a matter of perspective and can either be a motivator or an obstacle to overcome. Failure is not a predictor of the future, nor a indication of a person’s value. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time, said, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I have missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Similarly, there is no absolute definition of success or the elements that make one person happy versus another. Most of us are guilty of letting others influence whether we feel successful or not, generally by how much money we make or the assets we have. But tangible measures can be false indicators. How many houses can a person live in at a time? Is there really a difference between a $500 suit and a $5000 suit? With highway speed limits at 70 mph, does it make a difference whether you drive a Chevrolet or a Maserati? Of course, it does. Not, however, because of the tangible difference in benefits, but because “more, bigger, faster, more expensive” brings more status from those around us.

[one_third]steve jobs 2 [/one_third][one_third]Who is happier – a Steve Jobs who made millions by designing products that makes life more entertaining, exciting, and easier for millions or Mother Theresa who lived a simple life while focusing the world’s attention on the poor, the homeless, the persecuted? I suspect that both were happy and both probably considered their lives a success, but neither would have changed places with the other expecting to find more happiness as a result.[/one_third] [one_third_last]Mother Theresa[/one_third_last]