What Should Be Done?

Let us observe some things about ourselves in how various people among us might answer an overarching question about how to fix a society that most would agree is seriously ailing.

QUESTION

“What should be done about the mess we’re in?”

ANSWERS

SAM: “Pray about it.”
TED: “Throw the bums out of office!”
RALPH: “We need a good man in the White House.”
THOMAS: “We need more unity.”
ROBERT: “Put prayer back in the schools.”
ART: “Vote Republican.”
NED: “We have to get serious about protecting the environment.”
MIKE: “We need stricter regulations to keep big business in check.”
ANTON: “Back the Blue.”
ANSLEY: “Vote Democrat.”
ZANE: “Nothing. Just be at peace.”
WILLIAM: “Lower taxes.”
SAMUEL: “Raise taxes.”
PAUL: “More government programs.”
NATE: “Smaller government.”
FRANK: “Homeschooling.”
DAVE: “Increase spending on Education.”
CHARLIE: “Overthrow the government.”
FRED: “What this country needs is Jesus.”
GARRISON: “Promote diversity.”
HOWARD: “Term limits.”
IRWIN: “People need to get more informed.”
JAMES: “Less talk; more action.”
KERRY: “We need to bring back the great American work ethic.
LARSON: “Restore respect.”
MANNY: “Get rid of religion.”
NILES: “Start prosecuting people in office who break the law.”
OREN: “Put Fox News out of business.”
PAT: “More hate speech laws.”
KELLY: “Get rid of CNN.”
LAWSON: “Put Zuckerberg in jail.”
MARTY: “Break up Amazon.”
MOE: “Bring manufacturing back home to America.”
MUNSON: “Gun control.”
GEORGE: “Stricter health laws.”
CARSON: “Bring back $1 gas.”
KARL: “Free college tuition.”
WALLY: “Defund the police.”
XAVIER: “End racism.”
ALEXANDER: “Make it easier to vote.”
ALLEN: “Voter ID.”
BARRY: “Tort reform.”
DANIEL: “End the Fed.”
FREDDY: “Get rid of internal combustion engines.”
HARRISON: “Get back to the Constitution.”
LENNY: “Get rid of the Constitution.”
ANDY: “A one-world government.”
BRADY: “Anarchy.”
KELVIN: “Diet and exercise.”
MALVIN: “Yoga/Meditation.”
MAURIE: “STEM.”
OLLIE: “Can’t we just get along?”

This could go on and on, but I think this is a good enough sampling to get a feel for how varied might be the responses.

Surely, some of these are great ideas. And surely, some of these are terrible ideas. Almost all of these, however, are grossly over-simplified and/or over-generalized ideas, and this speaks to what I had mentioned above, regarding what we could learn about ourselves (either as a society, or as individuals) by observing how we tend to handle such questions. And surely, we’d learn just as much by observing how we tend to handle the more fundamental question: “Just what is the biggest problem in our society?” Indeed, I would expect a lot of people to answer the first question without first exercising the cognitive due diligence of defining just what mess we’re trying to fix in the first place. Yes, we can be that sloppy in our approach to thinking through such things!

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a few days, just to highlight how we’re “all over the board”—like what you’d see if you were to throw a dozen darts at a dart board (unless you’re excellent at darts). I don’t want to get off into the weeds of the details, but I will say this much. Let’s look at Sam’s answer at the top of the list: “Pray about it.” And then let’s ask Sam, and everybody who agrees with him, “OK, and what result should we expect to see from that?” And in response to that, I would expect that group’s answers to be “all over the board”. Is this me saying that prayer is bad? No, this is me wanting more than just a pat answer.

Or with Ted’s answer (“Throw the bums out of office”), suppose we were to ask this question to everyone who agrees with Ted’s go-to solution: “After throwing the bums out of office, what would be the next step necessary to produce a substantial improvement in things?” And while we might get some simple answer like, “Put good candidates in their places”, we’d find on follow-up questions that Ted’s group might be “all over the board”. For example, let’s ask them “OK, what makes a good candidate”, or “How can you actually get a good candidate elected in this day and age?”

This is what I mean by over-simplification. So many of these answers are just something to say. They’re not well-considered strategies; they’re just something to say—something to tell ourselves—something to tell others—something, perhaps, by which to pretend that we’re not as clueless about what goes on as we actually are?

So I thought that in this post, I’d put myself on the spot, as it were, and take my best stab at answering the question briefly—with no particular plan having been conceived in advance. So, here goes:

QUESTION (restated)

“What should be done about the mess we’re in?”

JACK’S ANSWER

Well, the mess we’re in is actually an aggregate of a lot of messes running at once–and that mess certainly includes the trouble caused by all our different ways of identifying causes and effects, and of differentiating between what is true and false, and between what is effective and ineffective. If there is some sort of fundamental cause underlying the overall mess of things, wouldn’t it have to lie in what the typical human does in his or her mind? So, shouldn’t the remedy have something to do with improving how we think, decide, and believe—with how we manage what goes on in our minds?

In short, we need some way to become better at being humans—better at how we manage ourselves and our relationships with others, and our habits of dealing with one another, whether in friendships, businesses, or government. I have seen people who believe any of the particular answers given on the long list above, yet who do not seem to think it’s very important to be learning how to be a better human themselves. But think of the irony that Ted should be adamant about throwing the “bums” out of office, but not about avoiding being a “bum” himself—or that Pat is adamant about “hate speech”, but is not concerned with the fact that he he himself says hateful things about people he thinks are immorally intolerant of others.

If we can’t find a solution for our own selves—for what goes on inside—then is there really any reasonable hope for fixing things on a grand, societal scale? And can you really fix anything overall without having to improve the behavior of individuals? Why, then, would we reach any other conclusion than that each of us should fix him- or herself?

And we tend to have more problems than just one. Cognitive miserliness and moral miserliness are two huge ones—the result of which is often observed in hypocrisy, which is a plague upon our culture. If we were to improve just 50% in these things, it would make a tremendous difference in our society.

The way I see it, this is our work, whether we do it or not. It is so easy to fall into the trap of fussing about what’s so wrong with everyone else, or, perhaps, quietly stewing over it, rather than fixing what we could manage to fix in ourselves. And surely, many fall into the trap of wishing that someone else would come fix their hearts and mind for them—doing for them what they could do themselves if they thought it were worth the effort to learn how and to do it. This is why so many over-invest in the hypothesis that man is an utterly-helpless worm that has no ability to do or think or want anything good, but must have all goodness divinely instilled into him by God.

But here’s something ironic: Even the people who buy into that notion—who claim that any good that resides in them must be the fruit of God’s own doing—seem to settle for so very little of that fruit, when, to hear them talk about it, God is this ever-flowing font of goodness, freely giving of himself and his riches of virtue to all who ask. Why, then, do they not to get themselves some more of that? Must God also make them ask for more—them being unable to desire and request more on their own?

Well, it that were the case, then how would we escape the conclusion that whatever is wrong with us—whatever is not yet fixed in us—is ultimately God’s fault, and that we ourselves must be blameless?

And I know a lot of people that seem to operate quite like that—even though I could not imagine them admitting it in words even in a thousand years of operating that way. They just don’t seem to want to be accountable for themselves. And yet even so, they are quick to stew or to fuss (or both) about how other people ought to be doing a better job in their thinking, deciding, believing, and doing. So, it would seem that the folks I’m talking about really do believe in personal accountability after all, except in their own cases. And what could be a more quintessential exercise in hypocrisy than that?

When I read the Bible, I see God holding a lot of people accountable for their choices. And I suppose I have taken the same view—that it is right to hold us accountable for what we choose, and to judge us by the same standards by which we judge others. Indeed, if that were unfair—if our standards for others were unjust—then why are we using those standards ourselves? If it is good for the goose, then why not for the gander?

But that’s an examiner’s question, and not the question of the cognitive/moral miser. And that brings us back to the problem I’ve been getting at—that not enough of us are duly concerned with how we manage things inside. We get upset for how other people’s mismanagement of themselves hurts or inconveniences us, for sure, but we give ourselves a pass far too often for causing similar troubles to this world ourselves.

There are a lot of front porches in town that need sweeping. Shall I sit in the dust on mine, and complain about the neighbor’s laziness?

If there is some answer that’s more fundamental than this one, I have yet to learn it. And there’s a great gradient—both in politics and religion—spanning between those who care nothing about principle, and those who care about it with great diligence. The masses, however, rest in the middle of that gradient, and sort themselves out left-and-right, with none of their camps being very accommodating to the ones who care the most about getting things right. They all cheat. They all cut corners. They all deny, from time to time, the principles they otherwise seem to be interested in promoting. And yet they all expect their members to be more loyal to the group than to their own continuing maturation in principle and practice. The most diligent of people don’t seem to do very well in those groups.

And these are the groups who, generally speaking, run the country and the churches and the schools and the companies and the media. And most of these things are designed to thrive within the status quo, and are not interested in meaningful reform. They are a lousy hope in the hunt for a cure to what ails us, then. Generally speaking, they are deeply committed to mediocrity, and not to excellence—to what is popularly acceptable, and not to what is true. They are not the answer that they hold themselves out to be, and that so many wish they were.

I think the answer lies in the question, “What kind of people are we?” and its sister, “What kind of people are we willing to become?”

I could say without reservation that Fred’s statement (above) is right: “What this country needs is Jesus.” But the catch is this: Which Jesus is Fred talking about? Is he talking about the one in the Bible, who held people to account and expected much from them, or the one that’s so popular in the churches today, who gives people a pass for their choices and slathers them with a “grace” that basically says “Your choices don’t matter, as long as you choose to maintain a minimal belief in the fact that, ‘Jesus is Lord’.”?

Who among us can be flawless? No one. But the question that drives me is this: Who among us can be better than he is?

This, we could do. This, we should do. And this, widely-adopted, would change the world.

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