Outside the Law: Persistent Memories of “The Star Chamber”

“Disgusted with criminals escaping the judicial system via technicalities, an idealistic young judge investigates an alternative method for punishing the guilty.” — IMDB, The Star Chamber, 1983

I saw The Star Chamber a long time ago, but the thing I remember most is being perfectly caught in the moral dilemma from the story’s first minutes. (Michael Douglas is above-average as usual; Hal Holbrook is amazing.)

Have we all not been there on some level?

You are doing what the system tells you is right. You follow the rules of the system, with the presumption that somewhere in all of your effort is justice. That outcome may not be obvious, but you just have to believe that following an agreed upon protocol is better than going rogue and making up your own rules.

It has to be. If it’s not, how are we to live?

If you are not familiar with The Star Chamber plot, you can read a good summary on Wikipedia. A young, idealistic judge who believes two child killers have been released on a legal technicality is recruited into a secret society of judges whose members order hits on criminals who “fall through the cracks” in the system. It is hard not to pull for this illegal but satisfying attempt to make bad men pay for their egregious crimes against humanity. You know from the beginning, however, that there is no way, no matter how much you want it to, that this can ever work.

It’s a classic tale of becoming the very thing you are trying to eradicate.

The writing is on the wall, but I still get drawn into this idea, the idea that we can fight a broken system by refusing to play by its rules. Beyond that refusal, we can create alternative systems that punish the corruption of the others. It all should work as long as no one screws up.

The thing I keep coming back to in these stories, the fictional ones and the ones I live in my own life, is the terrible mistake of believing that human beings can ever be part of something that isn’t flawed. It’s just the way we are. We want to be good, we want justice, we seek the right, but so often we are left bleeding from the shards of an imperfect world no matter how hard we try to fix things. It’s such an ancient understanding it fuels most creation myths, and yet somehow we struggle to accept what we know and have known since human beings started taking a look at ourselves.

There is no end to the debate over government vs. private business when it comes to which system offers the most ethical environment for decision-making. Government and public systems are fraught with rules and regs that often paralyze action and lead to limp results; by the time you schlog through all of the dos and do nots, you almost forget why you wanted to do anything in the first place. Private business can be efficient, but the efficiency can leave gaping holes in thoughtful processes, and cuts the time often needed to review a decision for consequences.

In The Star Chamber, a hit is ordered on presumed killers, only for the judges to learn the men were not in fact responsible for the death that prompted the order. That’s not a problem, they reason. We know they are bad men. They did something. If they are not to die for this crime, they surely deserve to die for other sins.

While my personal ethical lapses may seem minor compared to those in the movie, I know that they often trend around the same kind of thinking. This whole situation is wrong! It’s so messed up. Anything I do to fix some of this mess must be better than living with this broken situation.

Except it never, ever works that way. Ever. Not in the long run.

Prayers today for the family and friends of the slain U.S. Ambassador in Libya.

Prayers for my friend who is in the middle of an election year mess at work.

Prayers for my country as we continue to grieve and seek justice over a decade after the terrorist attacks.

Just….prayers for all of us.

(You can view one of the better movie clips available online here: http://www.artistdirect.com/video/star-chamber/55261)

ISO: Legitimacy

A philosophy professor of mine recently summed up human nature this way:

Human beings are legitimacy seeking creatures.  We want to know what the right thing to do is, and we will move heaven and earth to persuade ourselves that whatever we’ve done is somehow justifiable.

This came up after a couple of hours of our class discussing the ethics of cannibalism at sea, so you can imagine we had struggled through some weighty life and death problems in a short time span.  Our heads were swimming with issues and questions, and when our prof dropped the concept above you could hear in the room’s silence each person’s recognition on some level of this reality.

It’s a fascinating idea.

We all have a need to articulate our decisions in an ethical framework, but the drama creeps — or barrels — in when our frameworks are different.  Slightly different, a little bit of drama.  Very different?  War.

That is how we are, and it is hard to deny or ignore once it gets into your mind.  I find myself thinking, “Should I do this?  Should I do that?”  and quite often it matters not one whit to anyone but me.  There can be nearly nonexistent consequences beyond myself, and yet somehow I go through the right/wrong process whether it be an enormous decision affecting others or simply a choice affecting me.

Ethical decision-making is incredibly complex if you take it seriously.  The world is full of black-and-white moralists who want us all to believe along with them that the world and people in it are simple things.  Just follow this law, or that rule, or what that spiritual authority is believed to have said, and everything will be fine.  What evidence there is to support this idea, especially in the context of occasionally conflicting laws/rules/texts is not clear to me, but that does not stop it from being incredibly popular.

To be quite frank I’ve dropped a lot of handwringing over the years compared to how I used to be.  I once heard someone say, “Guilt is a useless emotion” and I’ve never forgotten it.  It changed my life.  Agonizing over things I cannot undo is pointless.  But attempting to resolve the decisions I have made into an ethical framework that works for me is important and ongoing in my life.  Naturally this begs the question, what the heck kind of person retrofits his or her ethics to assuage a fevered conscience?

Apparently, every kind.

Image credit: Follow Steph

Mr. Manchin Goes to Washington

Washington DC is an interesting town to say the least.  One thing is certain, it’s a company town and the sooner newbies grasp that the better

James Stewart as Sen. Jefferson Smith

One of the smartest things anyone can do is spend time developing an appreciation for the rules of the game, and one can only do that if they are willing to be taught by experienced pros.  I’ve always been fascinated by what Washington is willing to forgive in team players — huge, egregious, frankly disgusting faux pas and outright unethical behavior — as well as with the seemingly minor infractions that will be bashed over the infidel’s head for all time.

Joe Manchin is getting creamed for a dumb decision, and I think it is deserved.  What I mean by that is this:  The dumb decision was not skipping the DADT vote to spend time at a family party, per se; the dumb decision was not comprehending that as a green U. S. Senator, he has dues to pay.  Personally, I think he should have showed up to vote, that this is a serious piece of legislation, and that he owed casting his vote to the people of West Virginia.  But in terms of political strategy, he owed his presence and vote to his colleagues in the Senate.  This is the big leagues now, not home state goofball back slaps, wink wink nudge nudge stuff.

My observation is that Mr. Manchin keeps a tight old-school crowd around him and gives them tremendous power and influence.  That trust was misplaced in this case, as loyalists used to playing the game in West Virginia who have never done more than watch the game in DC are ill-equipped to advise him on the national scale.

Sure, there are some people in West Virgina who are stirring a crock pot and giving props to the idea that a nice family man prioritized the holidays with loved ones over those radical homosexuals.  That was yesterday’s game, and if Mr. Manchin wants to get serious about winning today’s game he should give the cronies a desk job and start listening, closely, to people who understand Washington.

It’s a difficult balance, in DC as in life itself; personal priorities vs. the requirements of the job.  It may be most difficult in politics.  Manchin made a mistake, and that hardly makes him unique.  His next move will be very important.  I suggest it should start with being willing to expand his advisory group beyond the old neighborhood.  There are people who are good with numbers, who no doubt told the senator that his vote could only hurt him one way or the other, that whatever he voted he would not cast a deciding vote, and that the math suggested he stay home.  Politics involves math, but those who are the very best at what they do know it involves more art.

As a constituent I am hopeful for greater art appreciation moving forward.

Image credit: American Rhetoric Movie Speeches

I Want to Be a Shepherd

I’ve mentioned here before my utter love of the film Good Will Hunting.  Most of that love is connected to the depth of acting performance by Robin Williams, but the character of Will, the plot line, and the dialogue are major drivers of my adoration as well. 

Some of the dialogue is heavy and deep, and some is just snappy and delivered with spot-on timing.  It’s interesting how even the silly lines will crop up for me as I interpret and consider the characters and plot of my life.  There is a pivotal scene in the film where Sean (Robin Williams) is pressing Will (Matt Damon) to connect with himself on a level deeper than any he previously has allowed.  Will’s entire persona is a mask, an armor against the vulnerability of life alone, truly alone and exposed as someone no one understands, loves, or cares about in any regard.  As long as that person is not exposed, he preserves his illusion that he is alone by choice, and that he does not care what anyone thinks of him.

After multiple generous attempts to pry some genuine self-examination from Will, Sean tries again.  “What do you want to be?  What do you want to do with your life?”  Will says with false sincerity, “I want to be a shepherd.  I want to get some sheep and tend to them.”  Finally at the end of his tolerance rope, Sean kicks Will out of the therapy session and directs him not to come back.  The scene ends with what I am sure must be a highlight of Williams’ legendary ad-lib tradition, when Will drops a “F*ck you” to which Sean replies seamlessly as he closes the door in Will’s face, “You’re the shepherd.”

This is all preamble to an epiphany I had listening to a friend’s teenage son bemoan the hard choices of adolescent social life.  In a half-hearted defense of some peers who harshly criticized one another online he said, “It’s just the way it is.  You all don’t understand.  You’re either a wolf or you’re a lamb.”  The implicit judgement was clear:  Only an idiot would be a lamb by choice.  It’s best to take others down first and establish oneself as a wolf not to be messed with, rather than to take a placid and passive approach to negotiating relationships and reputations.  One travels that route at his or her own peril.

Many people see the world this way, and frankly for good reason.  They have not been presented with many other choices, and the adolescent world is notorious for exacerbating these human tendencies.  I think it must be because I know the adult leadership in the mix so well that Will’s choice, facetious as it is in the film, popped into my mind.  There is another choice, and it is a genuine choice. 

We can be wolves, we can be sheep, or we can be shepherds.

The image of The Good Shepherd is sacred in my faith tradition.  My parents made a point of making sure I understood — really understood via trips to a Pocahontas County farm on an annual basis growing up — what it means to be a shepherd.  Sheep, God bless them, are about as impossible to manage and care for as livestock comes.  If you’ve been around sheep to any extent, you know what I’m saying.  They are darling, and hopelessly dense and reactionary.  They get a lot of nasty stuff stuck to them as they bumble around, and they can’t clean themselves.  They have no idea how to take care of themselves at all.  They are nearly defenseless against predators and they couldn’t find their way home with a compass, a map, and a flashlight.  This is for starters.

It’s important to understand the nature of sheep if you want to really understand the nature of a shepherd.  Sheep need a lot of help, and they will never stop needing help.  Somewhere along the line someone decided they were worth it, and that the effort required to help them along was important.  I think of that when I am presented with false choices about lambs and wolves.

It’s a dangerous job.  It’s an exhausting job.  It’s a thankless job.  But when the flock is all accounted for, and the fire burns low and a friend is on watch, I’m not sure there’s a better rest to be had.

I want to be a shepherd.

Image credit: Silver Valley Stories

A New Difficulty for Mankind: How to Die

This holiday weekend is a time when many people gather with those they love and trust the most.  It is traditionally a time of fun, laughter, warm feelings, and full tummies.

It can also be a rare opportunity to speak in-person with the most beloved people in your life about an incredibly important topic, and that is end-of-life health care decisions.  I know, I know, that is not what anyone wants to do.  Personally, I am not convinced this weekend is the ideal time, given all of the other emotions and events that tend to swirl in the mix of family Thanksgiving traditions.

But it is a good time to think, I am certain about that.  Look around the table, the living room, the front porch.  Do you know what your parents want at the end of their lives?  Does your partner know what you want if the worst should come unexpectedly?  It is crucial now that we deal with a monumental change that grips modern life.  I found the following line from an excellent article in The New Yorker  by Atul Gawande to present the issue in a nutshell:

(My patient) was unmarried and without children. So I sat with her sisters in the I.C.U. family room to talk about whether we should proceed with the amputation and the tracheotomy. “Is she dying?” one of the sisters asked me. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I wasn’t even sure what the word “dying” meant anymore. In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.

Until fairly recently, dying was a rapid event.  It was rare to know one was facing terminal illness much before the end.  Today’s health care environment brings many opportunities and much hope in many cases, but it has a side as dark and disturbing as anything I’ve ever read in the bleakest novels.

Dr. Gawande’s article is difficult to read, especially for those of us who have seen people we love battle on through Gulag-like regimens of “care.”  The good news is that I see more friends who are ill choosing to die at home, with the human touch of the most important people in their lives.  They can do this because they made the decision to establish a living will, and to communicate with their family and friends before anything happened.

I am participating today and through the rest of the weekend in the blogger rally created and supported by Engage With Grace – a movement aimed at making sure all of us understand , communicate, and have honored our end-of-life wishes.  I especially am grateful to my friend Bob Coffield for this opportunity.  His Health Care Law Blog is recognized nationally as one of the finest resources for current law and policy issues affecting health care.  (He’s also a Twitter maniac.  You can follow him @bobcoffield.)

At the heart of Engage With Grace are five questions designed to get the conversation about end-of-life started.  In the spirit of Esse Diem‘s commitment to Read Think Speak Write, I hope you will take the opportunity to do each of those things around this critically important issue.

Real Friends: Manning Up to Curve Balls, Together

A very good friend of mine from college shared with me this (edited) email that her own father recently wrote to a group of his fraternity brothers.  My hands-down favorite has to be the “we all manned up” comment at the end.  The timelessness of the friendships moved me, and got me thinking about my own feelings about old friends.

Despite our ever more technologically connected world, I generally feel more disconnected from my friends.  I love Facebook for its capacity to keep me from not losing touch all together with far-flung relationships; and yet there is the danger of buying into the dynamic that people are products.  We set up our own profiles, we decide what photos go up, what stories are shared, what image or slice of our realities we want to present.  I only know what you want me to know, and vice versa.

I miss that greater sense of entirety about my friends’ lives.  When we all were in the same physical space more often, I knew that you said that dumb thing in front of an important person.  I knew your mom was mad at you, that your dog was really sick, that you wondered why I hadn’t called.  I knew you liked peanut butter in your milkshakes and had to take a nap every day or you became an unbearable pill to be around. 

We could talk about politics and sex and religion because we weren’t afraid the other one would walk if we said the “wrong thing.”  I knew you were a cheap date, that you were not sure you liked girls “that way,” and that you cried when you woke up from a bad dream.  I knew you were under too much pressure, that you had almost cheated on your taxes but didn’t at the last-minute.  I knew you were afraid, really afraid, that you had picked the wrong career, or the wrong life partner, or the wrong dress.  I knew you were an unrepentent dork about Star Trek, and that you were not even joking when you said, “Worf’s hair looks really good like that.”

Knowing these kinds of things is what makes for real friendship, and we can only know them from time spent together.

Here’s to real friends…………

Dear brothers, I certainly enjoyed seeing all of you this past weekend.  Sarah and Tim overdid the hospitality and I know everyone appreciated their generosity and hard work as much I did.

Many thoughts hit me on the rainy ride home.  I did not take notes, but I should have because the details were as interesting as the big picture was chronological — our “here’s what happened to me” stories.  Following are my general impressions of our collective “my life so far”stories:

  • Small decisions can have big long-term implications and impact.  Many of those “small decisions” start with a whim and develop into life changes.
  • Big decisions that turned out to be questionable can in fact be course-corrected for the better.
  • We are a funny bunch.   Our collective sense of humor has only gotten better over the years and  probably has served us well in life.
  • In spite of the very different paths we each have taken over the years we are a relatively homogenous group, sharing the same values, stories and friendship.
  • Fifty three years is a long time not to see someone you like to be with.
  • We have accomplished much, yet retain modest egos.
  • We received a damn good education at our school. The Liberal Arts degree (that some of us initially did not know how to turn into jobs) gave us a wonderful foundation for a wide variety of challenges.
  • It seems like we are all happy with the way things turned out and are content. Those of us who have retired seem to enjoy being irrelevant compared with the stress of running businesses, practices and careers.   Those of us still working have figured out both what we like to do and a way to get paid to do it.
  • We have all “manned up” and dealt with the curve balls life sends us all.

Image credit: The Complete Pitcher

Where We Are, revisited

Mid Life. Crisis?

Written originally a year ago, this post seemed worth revisiting after a weekend away with old friends……..

Lots of my peers are wrestling with relocating their lives. There is frequent talk of “making a change,” and often this manifests itself in a laundry list of other places they and their families could live.

Looking for better schools for children; more variety in dining; more diversity in neighborhood; a change in commute; a change in climate; a new house; a more challenging job. The list is familiar and endless.

Pawing the ground at middle age is hardly new territory. The stereotype of the midlife crisis is not positive to say the least; but there is a strange degree of beauty in the moment. I like to believe that change is always available, that what we lose little by little is the will to make it. Midlife wrestling with where we are and where we want to go has an air of Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Where it can go wrong is usually two-fold. One, we repress our real feelings and needs for so long that when our conscience can’t manage anymore the backlash is a destructive taking of all our unmet needs we’ve left untended for years. Two, there is a lack of clarity about what it is that is really unsatisfactory.

Is it REALLY that we don’t have enough of this, that, or the other thing in the place where we are, physically? Or is it that we don’t have enough in other places where we are, like our relationships or our careers?  Here’s wishing all of us a good place to be today.