Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Unspoken Lesson in Harambe's Death

Nearly everyone has read by now of the unfortunate shooting of the gorilla named Harambe at the Cincinnati zoo the other day. Animal activists are outraged. The barrier, they say, around the gorilla pen should have been impenetrable. Maybe they also think the zoo keepers should have been more resourceful in saving the 4-year-old (some accounts say 3-year-old) who entered the enclosure. But zoo staff saw a child in the hands of an adult male gorilla and took quick, sure action. (This stands in contrast to the staff at the Palm Beach zoo a few weeks ago who chose to shoot a tranquilizer into a tiger who was mauling his keeper; the drug took enough time to take effect to ensure the keeper's death).

But there is a lesson in Harambe's death I have not heard mentioned. Obedience. The young boy, according to eye witness accounts, was told by his mother and a bystander NOT to try to go in with the gorillas, as he said he wanted to. The mother, busy with other children, did not notice her son as he ignored her instructions. As he proceeded through the barrier, he also ignored another woman's warnings, then fell into the moat, where Harambe zeroed in on him.

I see many parents who seem to feel that obedience to their commands is optional. Whether it's "No, you can't have any more gummi worms right now" or "No, you can't go into the gorilla's pen," the child has learned that his mother probably doesn't really mean it. He always manages to snatch another handful of candy, or get another half-hour in the pool, or not have to sit next to his brother if he just pushes it enough.

Many parents allow these defeats, telling themselves that it's not that big a deal. But the story of Harambe brings the error of this approach into painfully sharp focus. For centuries children have been taught to obey their parents for their own safety. A habit of doing what you're told must be formed as the stakes rise in the  child's life and more and more dangers present themselves. "No, you may not go out in the backyard" can one day be as important as "You may not beat on the fallen hornets' nest." Or worse.

Naturally, no parent can completely ensure that his child will not do something terrifying, especially when they have a very strong-willed tot. But a pattern of ignoring one's parents from a young age is almost sure to have serious consequences of one kind or another as the years go by. And since this little boy's willfulness led to the death of a magnificent silver-back gorilla, imagine his own difficulty in the years ahead as he grapples with the fact that his stubborn behavior brought about the shooting of the captive--and no doubt confused--gorilla.

Harambe reminds all parents to please, as the old song says, "Teach your children well."

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mirror, Mirror, on My Phone

We had just finished watching an odd movie based on the Snow White story when my husband observed, "Isn't the cell phone the new 'Mirror, Mirror, on the wall'?"

I stared at him. "Why, that's positively profound!" I found myself saying (not something I admit often to this sweet man).

We are all familiar with today's phenomom of young people staring incessantly at their phones--or maybe I should call them "hand-held electronic devices" since they are so much more than telephones. The obsession reflected on their faces indicates that something big is at stake in this digital activity. This is not a casual checking of messages or peeking at the forecast to see if they should have brought the umbrella after all.

Rather, what we see is a fixed, almost unblinking stare at the little screen in her hand. And yes, it is usually females I see afflicted in this way. She passes you on a narrow sidewalk without looking up. She walks through an ancient fort at the edge of a sparkling sea (a tour that her parents  paid a lot of money to take the family through) without even a glance at the venerable stone walls or colorful soldiers. When she goes out with her friends, you might see them lined up on a bench, all silent, and furiously tapping out messages to someone, somewhere.

What is so urgent, so absorbing? Well, like the evil queen in Snow White, these young ladies are checking on how they compare to all the other young ladies in the world. How many messages do I have? How many people "liked" the photos that I posted this morning? Did anyone comment on my comment when they saw how brilliant it was? Did those guys from last night accept me as a connection? Am I, at this moment, the electronically fairest of them all--or at least not completely pathetic???

This level of anxiety makes the evil queen's tension, as she waits for her mirror to confirm her unmatched beauty, look like a warm, bubbly soak. And if this variety of networked self-absorption were not enough, today's young damsels can load an app that turns their phone into an actual mirror. Yes, thank goodness for those  front-facing cameras and their vivid screens. She can buy the Makeup Mirror app and stare at herself as she walks along, checking her look in every light at every angle at every hour of the day. The app promises "awesome image visibility" and even has "gesture controls" (whatever those are).

This all makes me remember a classmate of mine in junior high. She had gone off to a camp one summer for a week. When I saw her afterward, she approached me grinning and said it was the best week she could remember. "Really? Why?" I asked.  The best part of it all, she said, was that they did not provide any mirrors. For an entire week she did not think about how she looked, she just did things like hiking and swimming and making camp fires.

How wonderful, I thought. To be looking out, not in. Such a shame that we have gone explosively in exactly the other direction.

Image courtesy of Pinterest.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Why Mr. Trump Should Scare You

In last night's Republican debate in Houston, Donald Trump finally took a beating from at least two of his fellow candidates, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Cruz. Two particularly shady exploits from Mr. Trump's past came into the light: the possibly bogus and unlicensed Trump University that ran for five years and took in some $40 million, and the use and misuse of illegal Polish workers to help build the Trump Tower by the tight deadline.

Can these revelations slow down the Trump parade? Will people care?

Much of America seems to have fallen in love with Mr. Trump over the past several months, as the polls show. Is it his get-tough rhetoric to "make America great again," or is it in large part our obsession with celebrities and entertainment? Mr. Trump has long been a celebrity, even playing the kingpin role in the reality TV show, "The Apprentice." And he is certainly entertaining, with his unrestrained language, expressive facial movements, and brutally frank remarks. The viewing (and voting) public seems to be lapping it up, so Mr. Trump untiringly dishes it out.

But we are talking about someone who proposes to take on the job of leading a country, of representing us to the world. That is serious business, even for a world-famous businessman.

One of Mr. Trump's strongest claims is that he will be good for the country because he is so rich he cannot be bought by special interests. Makes sense. But how did he get so rich? That story is not completely nice. And just how rich is he? While Mr. Trump puts his worth at $10 billion, others add it up to be more like $4 billion. Either way, that IS a lot of money and, more importantly, a lot of power.

Everything about Mr. Trump shouts that he is used to using that power however he sees fit. This kind of uber confidence no doubt helped him succeed wildly in business, but is it a good feature in the President of the United States? Already we have in place a President who has used his power to sign a startling number of executive orders so he can side-step an uncooperative Congress. Do we want more of that?

Mr. Trump has waffled on major issues over recent years and gives no evidence of having any real understanding of the problems facing our country. His coarse, even ruthless statements in front of microphones about anyone who opposes him should frighten rather than attract the thoughtful voter. Still, no matter what, his throng of fans continues to follow, admiring his bravado and take-charge promises.

Jonah Goldberg makes a disturbing but insightful case regarding the dangerous power of celebrity in today's culture. In his column, "Celebrity Culture Tends to Corrupt Us All,"* he cites the famous quote about absolute power corrupting absolutely. But he widens our view on that: Absolute power, like the power of the big celebrity, corrupts not just the man himself but also those around him. Normal people are somehow willing to do things for him that their conscience would, for anyone else, not let them; they cover up for him; in short, they become corrupted.

Mr. Trump, given the chance, could do a lot of damage to the nation with his loose-cannon approach to getting things done. His powerful celebrity status also gives him the ability to sow the kind of dangerous seeds that Mr. Goldberg describes. That so many of our fellow Americans embrace him as their hoped-for leader should give us grave pause.

Maybe this will turn out like the last two elections, when all the warning signs surrounding the young senator from Illinois were brushed aside by enough Americans to put him into the Oval Office--not once but twice. Maybe we as a country have lost the crucial ability to be scared.
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*National Review Online, February 26, 2016.
Trump image courtesy of spiked-online.com.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

No such thing as a dragon

In a recent episode of ABC's 20/20 (2/12/2016), Diane Sawyer interviewed the mother of one of the shooters from the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High. Seventeen years after the nightmarish attack, Mrs. Klebold spoke eloquently but tearfully about her experience as the parent of a teenager who proved, as a complete surprise to everyone and especially herself, capable of shooting down his fellow students in cold blood.

At one point in the interview, Mrs. Sawyer asked Mrs. Klebold whether she believed in evil. The mother knit her brows and slowly replied that no, no, she did not believe in evil.

I was stunned. Satan, I thought, must be pinching himself to be sure this is not just a dream. If even this poor woman does not believe in the presence of evil--a woman who witnessed her own son, whom she described as sweet and loving, transform mysteriously into a cool, calculating murderer--then who on Earth would?

So, imagine for a moment that you are intent on conquering your enemy's fairest city, carefully laying out a strategy and reckoning up all that this effort will take. Then your scout returns with miraculous news: The enemy does not believe you exist. They have built no fortifications, they have disbanded their army, and have even removed all mention of you from the children's textbooks. In short, they are wide open. All you need do is march in and claim the place and its surprised inhabitants as your own.

So it must be for the Prince of Darkness as he harvests legions of modern souls without firing a shot.

Mrs. Klebold's answer, that she does not believe in evil, goes a long way toward explaining the horrible acts that our fellow humans, often very young humans, are committing all around us today. The modern man says there is no such thing as some dark force, either outside or inside of us--just bad decisions and faulty environments that work upon a person until they find themselves deep into "damaging behaviors."

We don't talk about sin. The talk show host leans toward his guest, a young woman who has robbed her parents and grandparents, destroyed three cars while driving drunk, and threatened her brother with a large kitchen knife, and asks her if she would agree that she has made some "poor choices."

Saint Paul famously warned, "“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (1) But rather than a timeless statement of fact, St. Paul's words are derided as so much old-fashioned superstition. Evil does not actually exist, we contend, and neither does that scary place called hell.

Add to this sophisticated delusion the new ease of accessing those old forbidden fruits. We can feed a temptation to violence with a host of brutal video games, as well as a taste for depravity by quietly clicking into any of the countless pornography web sites. And when we follow a dark path to the point of committing a crime, our defense lawyer will convince the jury to be lenient because we suffered trauma as a child or had no good role models.

Naturally, many ugly things in our lives affect how we behave. People can decide to do terrible things, and these take their toll on us. But this is not an excuse to let ourselves be carried along into wickedness. Our situation is summed up well in the Vatican's 1965 statement Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope):

The whole of man's history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God's grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity. (2)

So we need to stop kidding ourselves. We can take a lesson from the children's book in which a little boy finds a small dragon at the breakfast table one morning, who proceeds to eat all the boy's pancakes. The child complains to his mother, who responds simply that "there's no such thing as a dragon." As the day goes on, the dragon grows larger and larger, filling a room, then the whole house, while the mother continues to assure her son that there's no such thing as a dragon. Only when the family finds itself riding high above their neighborhood, perched on the back of the beast, does Mom admit that this really is a dragon. And with this recognition, the dragon shrinks back to a manageable size. (3)

Indeed, there is good reason to keep praying the familiar words we have invoked for nearly 2,000 years: ". . . and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, Amen." (4)
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1 Ephesians 6:12 (King James Version).
2 GS 37, 2.
3 There's No Such Thing as a Dragon, by Jack Kent
4 The Lord's Prayer, by Jesus Christ, ca. 30 A.D.
Dragon courtesy of Bing free images.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Talk about disappointment . . .

Last Saturday my husband and I made a sudden decision to hustle over to Daytona to watch (part of) the Rolex 24 race. Four different classes of cars roared around the 3 1/2-mile course for 24 hours, tires smoking around the curves, engines screaming along the straightaways. We sat in awe of the technology streaking past us, amazed that now each car sports a lighted number on each side of it displaying for the crowd its current position.

One prototype class car, the DeltaWing, caught our attention with its narrow nose and patriotic paint job ("God bless America" emblazoned along its side). We watched as lap after lap, it took the lead, slipped a bit, and took it back. Go, Car Zero!

We dove back into the monstrous grand stand to find another vantage point. As we passed a TV screen, we stopped in our tracks. There was the DeltaWing being towed off the track on the back of a truck.The race was over for Car Zero.

I considered: How must this feel for Katherine Legge, who drove the car to the lead during the first shift? How about the hapless second driver, Andy Meyrick, who slammed it into a stalled car shortly after getting behind the wheel?  Then there are the grieving owner and the entire pit crew, not to mention the two other drivers who never got their turns.

Myself, I do not handle disappointment well. When I have prepared for something with great anticipation and it gets rained out, called off, or just goes kaput, I do not bounce back quickly. You'll see me sulking (or worse) for some time, throwing dark looks around and muttering about my rancid luck.

I need to remember the DeltaWing. Professionals like that crew, although deeply disappointed, have a way of looking toward the next race, the next game, the next campaign. They can't get stuck. And though it left the famous Daytona track trailing pieces and parts, the DeltaWing surely has not run its last race and will show up again, even better. Hope I can learn to do that.

Photo: Two prototype cars take an infield curve at the Daytona Rolex 24, Jan. 30, 2016. Overall winner was Car #2, Tequila Patron ESM, shown at right. Photo by Michael Doyle.