Don’t Follow Your Heart

Don't Follow Your Heart (it's often wrong!)

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario. Here’s this week’s!

When news of Al and Tipper Gore’s split hit a while back, many newspaper pundits chose to put a happy spin on it. Deirdre Baer, writing in the New York Times, urged us “not to feel sad” about the end of the forty-year union. Instead, we should “rejoice” that they have decided to take the plunge and find themselves!

Self-actualization is the new god.

This line of thinking goes like this: if everybody pursues their own dreams and values and goals, then the world will be better off. We must be true to ourselves. To fail to do so is to betray our deepest convictions; it is to betray who we are.

This philosophy reminds me of a comedy routine on drug use that Bill Cosby did years ago. He asked a druggie why he got high, and the druggie replied, “It intensifies your personality!” Cosby looked confused. “But what if you’re a jerk?”, he queried, though he used much more colourful language.

Good point. What’s so great about doing what is true to you if you’re also a jerk? Won’t that just increase the misery in the world? Following one’s heart is only a good idea if one’s heart is first going in a positive direction. The heart is not a very reliable compass, because it is too often governed by feelings rather than real conviction.

Living by one’s feelings makes one into a liar.

If you are going to live based on feelings alone, ensuring that you are always true to yourself, then you won’t be true to anyone else. Al and Tipper vowed at their wedding to love each other til death do us part, forsaking all others. At least one of them has violated that pledge. They vowed it once, but it doesn’t matter now.

Similarly, when you become a parent there is an unspoken pledge that you shall now put your child first, caring for that child and loving that child and nurturing that child until adulthood. If you one day feel that you would be better off pursuing your dreams away from your child, you’re true to yourself. But you’re not true to that child.

Feelings are not the best guide to right and wrong. Hitler probably felt very fervently that he was pursuing his dreams. Most criminals who now languish behind bars were letting their feelings get the better of them, too. The world is full of scars from people doing what feels right.

Our culture may celebrate feelings, but it needs conviction.

Without people willing to work a double shift at the hospital, even though they shouldn’t have to, our health care would collapse. Without accountants willing to be honest, even though they could really use some extra money, our businesses would fail. No workplace would long function if workers only decided to do what they wanted to do, and not what they promised to do when they signed on. And no family can provide a shelter from the outside world if people aren’t really committed to loving each other no matter what.

I’d rather that people decided to follow something outside of their own hearts.

I’d rather that people find a set of values that didn’t change—that we judged ourselves not based on whether we feel fulfilled, but on whether or not we are doing the right thing.

I’d rather that people cared far more about honour and legacy than they did about fun and self.

To live in a world where everyone strives for their own fulfillment is to live in a world where nobody really cares about anybody else. And despite what the New York Times may think, that doesn’t really sound like anything to celebrate. That sounds like something to mourn.

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We Are The World, We Love Ourselves

I was 15 when the original We Are the World hit the airwaves. I think it was for Ethiopia at the time, was it not? It kind of escapes me now. But I remember thinking that it was an interesting idea, but I didn’t know what kind of a dent it would make.

Now, 25 years later, they’ve recorded another “We are the World”, this time for Haiti. And Michael Jackson’s still in it, using footage from the original. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

My daughters have both been very active raising money for Haiti. We have a friend who runs an orphanage outside the capital city, and they’ve been overrun with refugees, so we’ve been helping to support them, sending money down.

So please understand, what follows is not mean to disparage anyone’s fundraising efforts for Haiti. The country is in desperate straits.

No, what interests me more about this video is what struck me 25 years ago, too, as a teenager. Take a look at the words:

We are the world,
We are the children,
We are the ones who make a brighter day,
So let’s start giving.

It’s a choice we’re making,
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we make a better day,
Just you and me.

Okay, here’s a grammar question: who is the subject in the majority of those phrases?

It’s “we“. The song is supposed to be about people who are suffering, but instead it’s actually a song about how we feel about the people who are suffering, and how we can make a difference, and how we feel about the fact that we can make a difference. It’s a song glorifying our generosity.

Does anyone else find that a bit jarring? First of all, we AREN’T the children. I think the point they’re poetically trying to make is that those starving kids are no different from us, so we should really give. But what would it matter if they were different from us? Shouldn’t we give anyway? No matter which way you look at it, the reference point in this song is US, not those who need help.

It’s true we make a better day, just you and me. It’s about you and me! We can sing about ourselves and feel better about ourselves because we care about others who are just like ourselves.

It’s a perfect metaphor for what has happened in our society over the last few decades. As the idea of objective truth and objective morality have dissipated, it’s been replaced by the ultimate idea that our feelings should now be an arbiter for the goodness or rightness of anything. Truth is what we feel truth to be. Truth is what feels right to us. Love is what feels right; if it doesn’t feel right, it’s not love, and we can give it up. We don’t want to be judgmental, so what you want is fine and what I want is fine. Everybody should just get along, and decide on their own what they think is best.

At one point, people believed in a higher morality, even if they themselves weren’t religious. You should do the right thing because it was the right thing. So people gave generously, or volunteered, or lent a hand, because it was the right thing to do. They didn’t have to be convinced to do it because it would make them feel good about themselves; they did it simply because it was the right thing to do, and doing the right thing mattered to people.

We no longer believe in “the right thing” as much as we believe in “the right thing for me”. I am the reference point, not the right thing. Everything revolves around me.

The area of Bas-Ravine, in the northern part o...Image via Wikipedia

When Jesus makes His case for why we should help the poor, He says, “for as much as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it for Me.” We should feed the poor because Jesus Himself identifies with the poor. He is the poor. When we feed them, we feed Him, because we care about what He cares about.

This song, on the other hand, doesn’t identify God with the poor; it identifies US with the poor. God is no longer our main reference point; it is simply how we feel about things. We aren’t then really honouring the poor in Haiti; we’re actually diminishing their humanity by saying they aren’t important in and of themselves; they’re only important inasmuch as they remind us of ourselves. We can only have sympathy for those who are like us, because our world has been reduced to what we want and what we think, and it’s no longer as wide and as big as it was when God was at the centre. When we are at the centre, the world is small. When God is at the centre, it’s full of immense possibilities and dreams and futures and hopes.

It’s amazing how we thought that in getting rid of God we could achieve more for humanity. It seems instead that we have become self-centred narcissists who exist to feel good about ourselves. Again, let me reiterate: I am glad that these artists are attempting to raise money and awareness of Haiti, and I hope and pray their efforts succeed. The fact that they have done it in this way, though, shows something rather disturbing. It’s now all about us. And if it’s all about us, and we decide that we really don’t want to care, what’s to stop us? If it’s really about us, and we decide we don’t want to stay married, or be bothered to be good parents, what’s to stop us? If we are the only arbiters of truth, then what is the higher purpose of life, except for trying to feel better and better about ourselves? It seems like a rather empty life, and I hope that someday soon we may remember a better song:

He’s got the whole world in His hands.


How I Would Do Obama's SchoolKids Speech Differently

'kindergarten class' photo (c) 2009, amy gizienski - license:

I’ve read most of Obama’s speech to schoolkids to all you Americans today (I’m up here in Canada), and on the whole I think it’s pretty innocuous. He tells kids to work hard, and not give in to the celebrity culture or the shallow thinking that dominates our society. Good for him.

I’ve read some criticisms saying that he should have addressed the real problems many schools face, like drugs or teenage sex, but the speech is being given to kindergarten kids, too. If he talked about sex to my kindergarten kid, I’d be livid. So I’m going to give him a pass on that one.

But one criticism, I think, is valid.

Obama has this habit of holding himself up as someone to be emulated. It gets old fast, and it’s not particularly effective. It is effective to say something like, “I understand how you’re feeling because I’ve been there,” and then to explain how you can empathize with them. That’s important.

But when it comes to inspiration, it’s usually good form to hold SOMEONE ELSE up as the model, even if you yourself are a good model. It’s just more effective, because you can get more excited about someone else’s achievements than you can about your own (and if you did get that excited about your own, you’d look arrogant).

The presidency is timeless, and to a certain extent should be partisan free. Obviously his issues will always have a partisan bent, but the presidency itself is an office that endures and stays the same, regardless of who is in it. Because of this, Obama represents America in a way that no one else does. So he has a responsibility, in turn, to represent America back to others. And the way to do this is to talk up America’s strengths.

If you want to excite schoolchildren, for instance, talk about Thomas Edison. Talk about Abraham Lincoln, who worked hard and taught himself because he didn’t have the “privilege” of school. Talk about the slaves who taught themselves to read. Talk about the achievements of someone like Ben Carson, who came from a poor, single parent family, but whose mother made him work so hard at school so that he could go on to become the world’s leading pediatric neurosurgeon.

Inspire by talking about what has made America great, and how education has played a role in that. Inspire by saying that America’s military is the best in the world, and the most innovative, because America has created a society where people can work hard and come up with new ideas. We are creative. We are visionary. And school gives us the tools to keep on going.

In other words, talk about what there is to be proud of in our heritage, whatever party you belong to. Talk up America, don’t talk up yourself. And I’m saying this as a Canadian.

Obama’s speech was good, but it could have been better if it had focused not on himself, but on America as a whole. So why is it that his speechwriters didn’t think of this?

We could be partisan and just say that it’s because they’re not proud of America, and they think the only good thing about America is Obama. That’s certainly what a lot of blogs are saying today. But I think there’s actually a bigger reason.

Obama comes from the left, and most of his advisors do, too. And what has happened intellectually on the left over the last thirty years is that this idea of “truth” and “history” has been erased. Everything is relative. There is no truth; only what works for you. There’s no such thing as real history, it’s only whatever bias you have, and the bias of those who wrote history. We can’t “know” anything at all.

And because we can’t “know” anything, the only thing that counts is our own experience. So instead of telling you about history, I’ll tell you what I think. My own experience and story counts as much as the accumulated knowledge of the country.

I think that’s ridiculous, obviously, but that is what is happening in our schools and our universities. It’s why university is being dumbed down. It’s why we’re not studying the classics anymore. Everything is biased, nothing is true, and nothing is real.

But God is real, and because God exists, and He is unchanging, there is a standard for truth. That’s why Christians like and analyze history, because we think it can be studied and understood because it was real. God was there. And that’s why experience doesn’t matter to us as much as truth, or what texts say. Just because something works for you doesn’t make it true; we have to measure it by what God says.

Obama hit the right notes, but it could have been so much MORE. He could have truly inspired and given kids a glimpse of what makes their nation special. Instead he chose to talk about himself again. And I think he’d do a much better job if he remembered that the country is more than him, and that history does matter.

In Love with Freedom

Every Friday my syndicated parenting column appears in a variety of newspapers. This week’s is a little more philosophical than usual. It’s focused a bit on the Canadian election, but the points are the same for the American election, too. It applies both sides of the border. See what you think!

We love freedom. Indeed, one can sum up the history of humankind from 1750 onwards as the quest for freedom, most ambitiously first in the United States, but followed quickly by demands in Canada in 1837 and in Europe especially in 1848. Over the next century the colonial world followed suit. Then, of course, we banded together to fight the tyranny of Nazism and later communism.

For the last four decades, though, we have fought for a very different kind of freedom: not freedom from tyranny, but freedom from responsibility.

Today, when we think of the word freedom we don’t tend to think of mundane things like ballot boxes or secret police; we think of the freedom to do what we want without other people telling us what to do. If I want to have sex with fourteen different partners, and have children by three of them, that’s okay. If a man wants to sleep around regardless of the multiple women he impregnates, that’s okay too, as long as he pays child support. If a woman wants to leave her husband and take the children with her because he doesn’t excite her anymore, no problem.

But let’s not be naïve and claim this type of freedom lacks consequences. Just look at the education system to see the effects of our quest for freedom. Today kids’ test scores are abysmal, and politicians are wringing their hands trying to figure out what to do.

So they spend more money, build bigger bureaucracies, and require more tax dollars, all to achieve less than what my mother’s rural Manitoba school did fifty years ago. They also take on more roles that parents used to fill, from teaching children about puberty to teaching kids to keep physically fit. We can’t trust the family to do these things anymore because the family, as we know it, no longer exists.

In late January, the Toronto school board passed a vote to start the city’s first black school. The impetus was admirable: teens of Caribbean descent have a 40% drop out rate, and the Board wants to correct that. What was omitted in most press accounts of this new school is that in this community, fatherhood is almost non-existent. So schools expand, spending millions more dollars, to try to make up for where the family is dropping the ball.

It’s not just schools, either. Family breakdown also causes more health problems, leading to more government. It’s directly related to crime rates, again causing more government as we build bigger prisons, courts, and hire more police. It requires more subsidized day care. Without the family to take care of each other, we turn automatically to the government. And the bigger the government gets, the more money it needs, to the point that we don’t actually start earning for ourselves until June 16, tax freedom day in British Columbia. Up until that date, we’re just working to pay the government.

It’s not just in monetary terms that we have lost out, either. The demand for freedom from responsibility also leads to a demand for non-judgmentalism, which then leads to speech codes in universities, governments, and the media. No one should make any sort of moral judgments against anyone’s behaviour, all of which leads to even more bureaucracy to monitor everybody else. Political freedom is so yesterday; freedom from absolute morality is today.

What saddens me is that we have lost this idea that we should be a responsible citizenry that is capable of governing ourselves and building a decent democracy. We’ve replaced it with a citizenry interested in pursuing their own happiness, because the government will pick up the pieces. And that is why freedom from responsibility ultimately hinders political freedom.

I doubt this is the kind of freedom that Mackenzie and Papineau were dreaming of during the rebellions of 1837. We have a social obligation to love our families, to be loyal to our families, and to keep our promises. We owe it not only to our spouse and our children, but also to our neighbours, our community, and our country. In this election, we’re often focused on what we can get from the government. Maybe it’s time we all collectively asked what we can do to make Canada a better place. That sounds old-fashioned, but let’s remember that freedom from responsibility is ultimately no freedom at all.

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