Friday, October 30, 2009

In Defense of God: Faith in an Age of Unbelief

This provocative cover story in Time magazine on April 8, 1966, paraphrasing 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, reported on the death-of-God movement then prevalent in certain liberal seminaries and which reflected the growing secularization of Western society. From slightly different perspectives, in the decades leading up to the 1960's, Christians and Jews alike were directly confronting a basic theological problem of modern man – the reality of God – a concept with which people of all faiths continue to struggle. For many Christians, the basic premise of their faith – that of a personal God who created the world and sustains it with love – was being attacked by an increasingly secular society. For many Jews, the concept of a loving God was impossible to fathom in the face of Auschwitz. Nietzsche contended that the self-centeredness of man had killed God, a thesis that has tantalized believers and non-believers ever since; the very notion compels us to reflect on the meaning of existence. “If you want to have a well-attended lecture,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “discuss God and faith.”

God’s existence has been questioned more recently in the best-selling books God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (Allen & Unwin 2007), and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2006), and in Bill Maher’s documentary, Religulous. Hitchens, an avowed atheist, recently participated in a debate in Christianity Today with Reformed pastor Douglas Wilson, a senior fellow of theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. Although I care little for Hitchens and do not share Wilson’s brand of evangelical Christianity, their debate – concerning whether religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is good for the world – was intriguing, if in large part frustrating, as neither man addressed directly the essence of the conflict.

I do not claim knowledge of one true way, nor do I believe that any one religion has a claim to ultimate truth. I was raised as a Christian in a mainline Protestant denomination – the son of a Lutheran minister, I was baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. Although I struggle with many aspects of traditional Christian doctrine, I continue to feel an invisible pull in the direction of my Lutheran roots. I do not quite understand Born Again Christians, who seem to require a sudden, inexplicable conversion experience to be a legitimately “saved” member of the tribe, and I have little tolerance for fundamentalists of any variety. My children were raised in the faith tradition of their mother – as Reform Jews – a movement within liberal Judaism which I greatly admire, with its emphasis on social justice and ethical action, and openness to theological questioning and spiritual exploration. I believe that God is revealed in infinite ways, befitting a people as diverse as humanity.

I respect those who disavow any belief in a deity, but I confess to a bias in favor of God; I struggle at times, perhaps unfairly, with the sincerity of those who insist that God does not exist. Intellectually and conceptually, I understand why some people do not accept God’s existence; in an age of skepticism, denial of God is rational. In the traditional sense, there is no firm proof that God exists – certainly nothing that can be proven in a court of law or to the satisfaction of a panel of scientists. Yet I maintain a deep and abiding belief in God. It is not something I can easily explain, for it is connected to my faith in God, a God of understanding, forgiveness and compassion, whose omniscient spirit is everlasting and ever present. Though I do not believe that God actively intervenes in this world, when my heart is open, I can feel God’s spirit. I have no proof of this fact. The non-religious may contend that my beliefs are merely psychological manifestations of child-like desires, a remnant of my youthful indoctrinations. Hitchens and company may suggest that my belief in God is but an infantile fantasy, but I am convinced that God is actively present in my life and the life of this world.

My faith is of a modern variety. I accept all scientific advances and explanations for the manner in which the universe functions. I accept that human beings evolved over millions of years out of less developed species; that a Big Bang or similar celestial occurrence physically formed the universe; and that we each have unique DNA. I am amused by people who point to our advancement in scientific knowledge as proof that God does not exist, that religion has no place in modern life. I do not understand those who believe, because of the infallibility of religious institutions and the historical evil some humans have perpetrated in the name of religion – that God, therefore, is a figment of our imagination. Too many people simplistically conclude that, if God truly existed, there would be no evil, no suffering in this world. But that conclusion is premised on the notion of God as master puppeteer, with control over all aspects of our lives and fates. If God had the power to change the course of human events, I too would have trouble with a God that allowed slavery and genocide, torture and war. With the miracle of life, we have been granted the gift of free will; how we live our life, how we treat others, what choices we make in life, is up to us. I believe that a part of God dies with each act of human cruelty; God cannot prevent human suffering, but rather suffers along with us.

There is a scene in Night, Elie Wiesel’s powerful memoir as a teenager in a Nazi concentration camp, in which he recounts the hanging of a young boy at Auschwitz, a vision for which he has been haunted ever since. Wiesel watched as the SS placed a noose around the boy’s neck, then kicked the chair from beneath his feet. “For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. . . . Behind me, I heard [a] man asking, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.”

That God is within all of us, that we are all children of God, is what makes sense to me. The quest for God is in the depth of our experience. As Jesus told his Apostles, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” This anonymous presence of God is manifested in the account of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:41, in which Jesus explains metaphorically that, in denying food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, in not welcoming the stranger, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

I am neither a theologian nor a scientist; I cannot engage in biblical exegesis, or wax philosophical about the history of the world’s religions, provide intricate psychological explanations, or site to medical and scientific experiments. But when I walk among the stars; when I stare at the moon on a warm summer evening; when I acknowledge the beautiful life presence of my two daughters, I experience God’s presence. When I observe the joy in a young child's heart over the embrace of a grandparent; when I watch the trees sway back and forth on a breezy fall day, and feel the moistness of the ocean at my feet; when I experience all of these things, and the multitude of ordinary everyday events, I see, first-hand, evidence of God’s existence.

Secularization and science have made it difficult to speak of and about God in a rational, convincing manner. Science is masterful at explaining what happens and how. Science has yet to explain why. The ultimate question for us all as human beings is, or should be, why are we here? For what purpose? Is there any meaning in life? What happens when we die? For atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, the answer is nothing – you live, you die, you cease to exist. Make the most of your life while here on earth – your legacy is what you leave behind. But there is no higher calling from which to draw sustenance, no true purpose to life. Hitchens and Maher may be rational, highly intelligent men, but I find their conclusions deeply empty and, ultimately, irrational. If we are nothing but an evolving mass of molecular biology with no higher purpose, if we have no spiritual essence, then why do we have a sense of morality, of right and wrong, of compassion and caring? Why do we struggle against hatreds, prejudices, and violent dispositions? Why are we here in the first place, and where are we headed?

Theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School asked in 1965, “Is it the loss of the experience of God, the loss of the existence of God in Christianity, or the lack of adequate language to express God today?” Perhaps it is all of those things. As described by the late Episcopal theologian John Macquarrie, “Faith in God is more than an intellectual belief. It is a total attitude of the self.” I understand what Macquarrie meant, though it does not translate well into a mode of scientific analysis.

Advances in science and our knowledge of the workings of the universe have required that religions adjust their thinking on the relationship between scripture, history, symbolism, and fact. Those who continue to insist on a literal interpretation of scripture cannot reasonably reconcile their biblical perspectives with modern day knowledge; for them, faith and reason will forever be at odds. For the more progressive branches of Christianity, and all but the most ultra-orthodox branches of Judaism, faith in God has survived scientific attack through the realization that, in the words of Harvard theologian Krister Stendahl, the Bible is “poetry-plus, rather than science-minus.”

Modern science has vastly expanded our knowledge of the universe such that we now can trace its origins to billions of light years ago. Yet despite the ever expanding human capacity for knowledge, superior technology and analytical skills, science has yet to disprove divine creation or find definitive answers. Even the most skeptical scientist must acknowledge the possibility of God; many of the most accomplished of scientists have never doubted God’s existence. For me, the evidence of God’s presence is all around us; proof that God does not exist has yet to be offered.

Faith will always require an irrational leap in the dark. There may well be no true faith without some measure of doubt; perhaps this is the ultimate gift of God.

Friday, October 23, 2009

In Search of an American Hero: The Mixed Legacy of Ralph Nader

I recently attended a lecture by Ralph Nader at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Ever since I first saw him speak at Wittenberg University in 1979, I have enjoyed listening to Nader. It is hard not to admire his fierce commitment to the public interest, one motivated by an adherence, not to a rigid ideology or political philosophy, but to a passion for right and wrong, a sense of justice, and a commitment to the facts. Love him or hate him, he speaks truth to power and backs it up with research, factual data, and hard work. Before dirtying himself in presidential politics, he was Sir Ralph, patron saint of the American consumer, spokesman for the public interest, a watchdog for the little guy. He has devoted his life to making the American economy safer, healthier, more competitive, more informed, and more open. A man of immense intellect – possessed of a near genius-level IQ, most people who have worked for Nader consider him the single most intelligent man they ever met – he has the ability to consume huge amounts of information and retain every word with near-encyclopedic accuracy. Not surprisingly, his positions and arguments are backed by extensive research and analysis.

Inspired by his talk, last week I watched An Unreasonable Man, a well crafted, entertaining documentary produced in 2007, which revealed Nader in all his complexity. Although part of me remains angry at Nader for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000 (Nader received over 97,000 votes in Florida, a state Gore lost by 537 votes), the film helped resurrect my earlier view of Nader, the one that sees him not as presidential spoiler and naive politician, but as the citizen crusader. Unafraid of challenging wrongs perpetrated by the largest, most powerful institutions of American society, Nader has done battle with General Motors, the nuclear power industry, Congress, government bureaucracies, corporate fat cats, corrupt trade unions, huge media conglomerates, and both major political parties.

What makes Nader so endearing is his complete embrace of American virtues and founding principles. More than any other social critic and political activist in my lifetime, Nader believes uniquely in America’s most deeply treasured values – free enterprise, the genius of small business, competition, openness in government, the free flow of information. He has devoted his life to increasing citizen participation, advancing democracy, and laying the foundation for an informed consumer. Big business claims to favor free enterprise, but Nader fights for laws and regulations – and, where needed, a lack of regulation – that promote competition. Thus, where laissez faire policies fail to adequately protect the consumer, or all citizens, he advocates increased regulation that addresses the shortcomings of capitalism. Left to their own devices, corporate interests will not incur added costs to avoid polluting the air and water, or to provide a safe workplace or a safe product; only if forced to do so – by threat of lawsuits, or pursuant to regulation and law – will it happen. Conversely, where economic regulation of markets has artificially limited competition, such as occurred in the airline and trucking industries in the 1970’s, Nader was instrumental in achieving deregulation, thus enhancing price competition in industries that had become too cozy.

In 1965, Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed, a fact-based, thoroughly researched book which exposed the careless and negligent operation of the U.S. automobile industry. Nader demonstrated that the auto manufacturers, in the interest of mass production and increased sales, designed cars with an eye on style, cost, and performance with little regard for safety. To the (mostly) men in the C-suites, it seemed not to matter that every year cars were involved in five million accidents, 40,000 deaths, 110,000 permanent disabilities, and 1.5 million injuries on America’s roads and highways. Nader proved that auto crashes need not be deadly and that many injuries could easily be avoided by minor and inexpensive design changes. In the beginning, Nader was virtually alone in addressing the issue and, despite the best efforts of General Motors (whose covert efforts to dig up dirt on Nader failed miserably), he proved that one person, acting intelligently, honestly, armed with facts and persistence, can make a difference.

When Nader took on the U.S. auto industry in the early 1960’s, it was not to dismantle capitalism or the American corporation, but to make it better. He recognized that corporate decisions were made with an exclusive focus on the bottom line – profits – and that spending money on safety and health was treated as an expense that produced no revenue. Why would any rational businessman, motivated by the desire to maximize profits, spend money on safety or clean air unless required by law to do so? Nader’s self-avowed agenda was to bring about the “qualitative reform of the Industrial Revolution,” not to harm American economic enterprise, but to improve it, by making it more competitive and responsive to the consumer. Nader understood that safety was something consumers clearly wanted but were not offered, in part due to a lack of competition (in the 1960’s, the auto industry was dominated by the Big Three – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – for which competition in the true sense was mostly non-existent). As a result of Nader’s persistence and growing influence, motor vehicle safety laws were enacted that required seat belts and, eventually, air bags; shatterproof windshields; safer steering wheel designs; softer, more flexible visors; and many other safety features now taken for granted. Virtually every car on the market today – domestic and foreign – includes in its marketing efforts an emphasis on safety, as car manufacturers compete not just over price and design, but safety and crash worthiness as well. The auto industry fought Nader every step of the way, but in 1977, Henry Ford II conceded on Meet the Press, “We wouldn’t have the kinds of safety built into automobiles that we have had unless there had been a federal law.”

Following his success in transforming the American auto industry, Nader focused his attention on other forms of corporate abuse, from hazardous drugs to deceptive advertising, price fixing to product obsolescence, energy wasting appliances to unsafe food additives; the list goes on and on. Although his name is rarely uttered with glee in the C-suites and boardrooms of American corporations, Nader’s positive influence on corporate governance and responsible corporate citizenship is undeniable. Today, the concept of corporate social responsibility is a part of every major American business.

Nader by all accounts has led a priestly life. His personal life, if he has one, is secondary. He demands complete loyalty to his causes, most of which do not pay well. Yet he continues to have many devoted followers who greatly admire his ethical purity, independence, and commitment to justice. He bases his arguments and tactics on hard facts, solid research, and rational, sound arguments. This is why he has been so effective – no one questions his motives, or whether he possesses some hidden financial objective or conflict of interest.

Yet I cannot help but wonder if Nader is blinded by his purity. When he insisted on running for President in 2000 – costing the Democrats the White House – and then feebly repeating his mistake in 2004 – he did much damage to his reputation and his causes. The cadre of public interest organizations that he created, funded, and helped give wings to, were greatly harmed when he chose to muddy himself in the political arena. For regardless of the issues he hoped to advance, and the causes he espoused, he appeared to be advancing Ralph Nader at the expense of America; his independence and selfless sacrifices for justice were no longer his compelling traits. Although it is difficult to come up with a political position he took, or a statement he made, to which I vehemently disagreed, his mere presence in the political arena caused great, and very predictable damage. Some of his most loyal, dedicated public interest employees resigned, the influence of his many public interest organizations weakened, and funding dried up.

Most importantly, his candidacy made likely – some would say inevitable – exactly what he had spent his whole life fighting against, as he filtered votes away from the Democrats, helping Bush win in 2000. If not for Nader’s candidacy, the argument goes, we would not have had the War in Iraq, the degradation of the constitution, the ballooning federal deficits, the abuses at Guantanamo Bay. But to this day, Nader is unrepentant. He correctly notes that Gore failed to carry even his home state of Tennessee, and that his censorship of Bill Clinton contributed to his loss of Arkansas (had Gore won either of those states, he would have won the election). In An Unreasonable Man, Nader contends that Gore (and Bush) needed to earn their votes, and that Gore, by moderating his views on certain key issues and catering to the corporate interests so dominant in the Democratic Party today, became virtually indistinguishable from Bush. Gore lost on his own far more votes than Nader could possibly have taken from him.

Nader correctly notes that Gore ran a poor campaign, but to suggest there was no difference between the two candidates, and to take no responsibility for Bush’s win in Florida, is to ignore reality. As intelligent and ethical a man as Ralph Nader is, his insistence on democratic purity and saintliness harmed the nation. Nader insists that his running for president was not to advance his reputation or public profile – in fact, it had the opposite effect – but to pressure the two major parties to discuss the real issues that needed addressing. His fault lie not in his motives, but in his naive belief that it was his place to do so.

Politics is often referred to as the Art of the Possible. Compromise and negotiation are ever present; principles abide only so long as winning does not get in the way. For the Democrats, this usually means suppressing the advocacy of effective gun control laws, compromising on national health insurance or its lesser component, the public option, and failing to insist on fundamental principles of economic and social justice in the tax code and the allocation of federal resources. This is to avoid offending swing voters, investment bankers, and corporate contributors. Although frustrating, in the real world of American politics, it is a necessary component of a winning formula. As a Democrat, I accept that compromise and the bending of principle is necessary to win elections and govern; it is part of the process. If you disregard pragmatism, you risk losing and accomplishing nothing. Some principles – fundamental human rights, the pursuit of peace and security – cannot be compromised, but there are many others that, in the day-to-day reality of political life, require flexibility and accepting less than the ideal.

For Nader, however, principle is everything – the cause is what matters, and anything or anybody that stands in the way of advancing the cause is to be defeated, even at the expense of smaller advancements. American society – all societies – need their share of Ralph Naders, those who provide an independent and powerful voice for citizens who, for lack of money, power, and access, are dismissed as irrelevant. Nader has certainly left his mark on American society. He not only created the consumer movement in this country, attracting a large following without any significant organization, but he also inspired the creation of similar movements in many countries around the world. He is not, and never has been, a man of privilege; his father was an immigrant and self-made man, an entrepreneur, small businessman, one who embraced and was driven by the American work ethic. Nader embraced the values of his father. He is the ultimate altruist, humble, self-sacrificing, possessed of an arrogance that permits him not to care about what others think of him. Nader is a man of consistency, one who acts for what he believes to be the greater good with little concern for how others perceive him. In this and many ways, he is an unusual man. His legacy will endure in the everyday improvements he has made to American life, law, and public policy. But his insistence on saintly purity in the elections of 2000 and 2004, and possibly in ways yet to be determined, will forever taint that legacy.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Life as a Cardinals Fan: Of Hope and Heartbreak

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. ~A. Bartlett Giamatti, November 1977

For those who know me well, it will come as no surprise that, at around 9:15 p.m. on Thursday night (October 8, 2009), I suffered a bit of a meltdown. You see, Matt Holliday dropped a fly ball. Not just any fly ball, mind you, but the routine, right-into-the-glove sort of fly ball that, on any other night, would have been caught, the final touch of a 2-1 Cardinals win. It was the bottom of the ninth inning in Game Two of the National League Division Series and the Cardinals were one out away from tying the series and sending it back to St. Louis. But then James Loney of the Dodgers hit a routine, soft fly ball directly at Holliday in left field. As the television camera panned on Holliday, the baseball sailed in his immediate direction, the game all but over; my fist was pumped, as Hannah (my daughter, and fellow Cards fanatic) and I were ready to celebrate the win with our customary high fives and fist knocks. Then Holliday dropped the ball. He tripped and fell face first to the ground, the ball dribbling away and rolling on the outfield grass like a live grenade, as Loney skidded safely into second. The rest is history. Ryan Franklin walked the next batter, yielded a game-tying single, walked another batter, and then gave up the game winning single to a 38-year old, washed up journeyman named Mark Loretta. I suffered a meltdown. I may have yelled a few profanities, I really don’t remember, my mind is a blank. In the immortal words of Jimmy Hoffa, “My memory fails to recall my recollection.”

The Cardinals had a surprisingly good season this year, winning 91 games with a team expected to finish no better than fourth place in their division. They are a resilient group, with solid pitching, good defense, scrappy determination, and Albert Pujols, the best player in all of baseball. They started strong and, come July, added stars to their arsenal – Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and Julio Lugo – which turned this seemingly mediocre bunch into not just pennant contenders, but favorites. But then Holliday dropped the ball. In the words of Chuck Tanner, “It’s hard to win a pennant, but it’s harder losing one.” I know far too well exactly what that means.

Books are written and movies made of the long suffering Red Sox fans, those poor souls who went 86 years without a championship; the Eastern Establishment and Hollywood glitterati have a soft spot for Red Sox Nation. Famous literary and political figures the world over profess an allegiance to that formerly cursed franchise. But Red Sox Nation has nothing on me. I live in Cardinal Nation – a soulful place where only the faithful dare dwell.

Cardinal fans are considered the best, most loyal fans in the country. We’re polite to a fault – we don’t gratuitously boo and throw objects at opposing players like they do in Philadelphia. In St. Louis, oceans of red swarm to the ballpark every night. One mustn’t be fooled, however, by our wholesome, Midwestern airs. Unlike Red Sox fans – and not to be too technical, but Cubs fans as well – who expect a black cat to show up when the season is on the line, or for the ball to roll through the legs of their aging first basemen, we expect to win. The Cardinals have had just enough historical success to create an expectation of winning. This is what sets us apart. We know we should win, that God is quietly on our side, that the world is not right if the Cardinals lose. But unlike those spoiled Yankees fans, for us, disappointment and despair are always one pitch away. It is only when you know that you are good enough to win, that you should win – when victory is within your grasp – and then, with two outs in the ninth, Holliday drops the ball and your All-Star closer suddenly forgets how to pitch, as four straight Dodgers reach base and turn certain victory into a devastating loss – only then have you truly suffered!

I have often thought that, when I retire, I will move to the Promised Land – uh, St. Louis, that is. No one in my family can quite understand this. After all, I am from New Jersey. No one told me when I was six years old that you were supposed to root for the home team. In second grade, we studied birds, and I fell in love with the cardinal, his bright red feathers accenting the smart, black trim around his beak. Then I discovered baseball, the smell of leather, the clean grip of the seams, the crisp sound of a wooden bat striking a hard, round ball, and the hopefulness of spring. A bond was created. The Cardinals won the World Series that year (against the Red Sox when the curse of Ruth still hovered over the harbors of Boston), and I was forever hooked. I knew then that my heart and soul lie along the Mississippi near the Gateway Arch, in the land of Gibson, Brock, and Musial.

Al Gallagher, who played four seasons for the San Francisco Giants in the early 1970’s, once said, “There are three things in my life which I really love: God, my family, and baseball. The only problem - once baseball season starts, I change the order around a bit.” I do have another life – as a lawyer, father, and citizen. But during baseball season, all else is secondary. The quality of my day is reflected in last night’s box score, my spiritual and emotional well-being affected by the outcome of each game. There may be a complex explanation for all of this, and it would probably take a team of psychologists to figure all the ramifications. Until then, I will obsess over Holliday missing that fly ball, re-playing it over in my mind until I am convinced that he really caught it, that the Cardinals are still headed to the World Series. Perhaps someday I will grow up, develop perspective, finally realize that baseball is only a game, a pastime, a place of pastoral beauty, symmetry, and timeless perfection intended to soothe a weary soul. Then again, I think of Rogers Hornsby, the great Cardinals second basemen who hit .424 in 1924, who said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Meaning of Fifty: A Personal Reflection

Knowing there's only so much time, I don't rejoice less but more. Knowing how many things will now not happen, I wish them Godspeed and pass them on to someone down the line. I honor my regrets, the part of me that never happened or happened wrong and proceed on course though the course is not known. Only the end is known and some days it's a comfort. We live on love, whether it's there or not and rejoice in it even in its absence. If I had known, I'd have come here better equipped - but that's another one of those things you can't change - as we can't alter that part of us that lives on memory, knowing all the while that time is not real and that what we are we never were in the light of that timeless place where we really belong, have belonged always. . . .

Albert Huffstickler (“Don't Ask The Angels How They Fly”)

I turned fifty this year, about six months ago, when no one was looking. For most people, fifty is the Big One, a momentous occasion to celebrate with a large party, or perhaps a life-changing trip to some exotic land. I chose instead a quiet day of normalcy – a long walk, baseball on television, and some time with my kids. I do not typically draw a lot of attention to myself and thus share news of my birthday with a select few, carefully eschewing work related recognitions and public displays of singing, but I was particularly adamant about not doing anything special for my fiftieth. I had celebrated my 30th and 40th birthdays with greater fanfare, marking those milestones in traditionally appropriate ways, although I did not really believe them significant, certainly not to the extent attributed by Hallmark and polite society. When I turned 30, the sense of impending adulthood beckoning, I joked of turning old, but I never doubted that I remained in the prime of my youth, my physical and athletic abilities intact, the possibilities of life seemingly limitless. Time was on my side – time to travel the world, write the great American novel, and pursue my dreams.

I was more contemplative ten years later, when I turned 40. With mouths to feed and bills to pay, career pressures mounting, I could no longer dream of frivolous adventures, my hours filled with the obligations of work and family. By age 40 it seemed, true adulthood had finally arrived. There was no turning back, the crutch of youth and inexperience no longer an excuse for mistakes or passivity. Yet in mind and spirit, I remained forever young, my jump shot still arcing through the net during my weekly basketball games, and my importance to the world seemingly acknowledged by the prestige and recognition associated with an advancing career. My hope of unfilled dreams still shined with optimism.

It was not until I turned 50 earlier this year, marking my half-century existence on this planet, that I sensed for the first time that certain of my dreams may forever be deferred, that time is a gift, its limits felt with the passing of each year. Though it seems as if I need constant reminding that I am no longer a young man, fresh from law school, determined to accomplish high-minded things, I remain confident and sure of myself about certain matters, full of doubts and insecurities about others. But I now recognize and feel, gradually, incrementally, the burdens of aging – the chronic back pain, the cranky joints, the perpetually tight muscles. And while I hope to live to 114, while taking long walks and watching the sunset with my great-grandchildren as I sit on the deck of my lakeside house and complete the final touches on my memoirs, I know now that life is not forever. Mortality awaits me and, for the first time in my life, I am truly aware of its dimensions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for it forces one to recognize the truly important things in life – family, relationships, closeness with God, and the true meaning of success. As Albert Huffstickler wrote, “Knowing there's only so much time, I don't rejoice less but more.”

I have on my refrigerator a well-known poem, usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, though perhaps originating in a work by Bessie Stanley, on success. It is one of those poems that, while perhaps a bit cliché, is profoundly true, and thus a source of inspiration:

To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch . . . to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
I have been blessed with good health, two beautiful children, a wonderful woman in my life, and a terrific family. Such blessings, I have come to learn, are determined as much by luck as any actions on our part, something that I believe most of us fail to recognize during our lifetimes. Many of those who fail in life start with a bad deck handed them – a fatherless childhood, the lack of role models, unsafe neighborhoods; some people are struck by illness, the death of a loved one, the pain of addiction, or the humiliation of unemployment and rejection. We all fail at something – indeed, most of us fail to live out our dreams or even to try, choosing instead the comfort and security of routine and all things familiar. How we respond to failure, our willingness to try a second and third time, to strive for perfection knowing we may never achieve anything close, this is how success in life is achieved, and how character is formed.

When my first marriage ended in failure, my children assumed even greater importance to me, their happiness and health tied immeasurably to that of mine. I have often wondered whether, given the chance to re-do portions of my life with the benefit of hindsight, I would have made different choices. But with age comes, I hope, some small tidbits of wisdom, including the acknowledgement that life permits no reruns and that the ability to forgive others for their mistakes, and yourself for your own, is spiritually and emotionally liberating. We must come to terms with our choices in life, the luck we are dealt, and the skills we have and are able to develop. Then do the best we can. My time remaining on this planet is likely less than the time already expended, but my destiny and the legacy I leave for my children and anyone else who may benefit, is in my hands. My only limits are time, fear, and imagination.

When I was nine-years old, I would lie on the grass in my backyard and stare at the sky, admiring the cloud formations, the richness of the unending image of blue, and the tranquility of the evening’s first twilight stars. I do not remember everything it was I used to contemplate as I lay with my head pressed against the ground, my mind deep in thought, escaping in sight and mind the pressures of life. Even at this young age, I can recall the burdens of life’s self-imposed expectations – to do well in school, to succeed in sports, to be liked and accepted by my peers. Maybe it was the solitude of space I was attracted to as I lay staring at the uppermost boundaries of heaven. Was there really a heaven, a dwelling place for God and his angels, I would contemplate as the first evening star sparkled its way through the darkening sky. Is there life on other planets? Has God assigned a purpose to my life here on earth? The universe held me in awe, inspiring my imagination until the call for supper abruptly intervened.

I do not remember the last time I lay on the grass staring up at the sky. It is unfortunate, really, for the sky has such a profound wisdom to it, an innate ability to put things in perspective, to keep us humble and remind us of greater truths for which we lack understanding. Life is too short, it whispers, do not overlook its simple pleasures or become embroiled in life’s daily struggles; experience the oceans, walk in the woods, skip stones on a stream, hike in the mountains, love your children, and appreciate your friends. Listen, empathize, show compassion, be generous of spirit, laugh, and love.