Pass With Care

“Pass With Care,” Bob Ryder

Proverbs 1:7– Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 16:18– Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Definitions of “a fool”

“A person lacking in judgment or prudence.” Webster’s Dictionary

“One who acts unwisely on a given occasion.” The Free Dictionary

“A fool is someone who ought to know better.”  Diogenes Allen

John Keating – Dead Poets Society – “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” 

Please take a moment and call to mind a time when you did something that caused harm to someone else and which you now regret. You won’t be asked to share it. Just for your own benefit, remember something you said or did – or perhaps something you failed to say or do – to the detriment of another that haunts you now; some episode from your past that creeps out from the closet of your memory as your falling asleep and causes you to wonder, “What was I thinking?”

Last Sunday Susan spoke about the virtue of striving for challenging goals.  We heard stories about ordinary people who’ve dared to take on projects that might have seemed impossible – even absurd – and found talents they might never have imagined they had as well as companions they might otherwise never have met.  She observed how creativity and community can combine as mutually reinforcing energies in a formula for social progress when we’re mindful of possibilities that spring up along our way.  Her reflection made a good impression on me, as I hope it did on you.

This morning I want us to consider a different aspect of challenging the boundaries and obstacles we encounter in our lives. Just as we’re drawn to explore what’s beyond the horizon by a sense of curiosity and adventure, to invent new technologies by a desire to make a contribution for the greater good, to test our physical and mental limits by a sense of ambition or creativity, can we also be lured into irresponsible and destructive patterns when our motivations deteriorate into resentment, greed, apathy or pride.  We’re well served by being quite mindful about our real intentions and the likely consequences of our actions whenever we’re attempting to break out of the status quo. The “why” matters at least as much as the “what.”

Please notice this reflection isn’t intended at all as a contradiction of Susan’s message, but as a continuation of it.  Striving to make progress, individual or collective, is an intrinsic and beautiful part of human nature.  We absolutely should question our assumptions of what’s possible.  We certainly ought to question authority.  We’re well served by taking calculated risks, endeavoring to fly further and higher, looking for a cure for cancer, running for political office, building a better mouse trap, waging peace, breaking the record for long distance swimming, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no one has gone before.  And, we ought to do so with a deep respect both for our own safety and responsibilities as well as for the dignity and well-being of others who might be affected by our efforts.  The goals worth achieving, the boundaries worth crossing are the ones that open up new possibilities for everyone.  Goals achieved by treading on the rights of our neighbors lead to nothing but shame.

The inspiration for my thoughts this morning came as I watched the news cycle of the past few weeks.  One after another, a virtual parade of human cautionary tales marched across the headlines.  I looked in dismay as people who practically have the world at their fingertips bashed their own foreheads against the door of common sense.  Referring to a just few for example, a billionaire sports franchise owner was arrested for allegedly soliciting prostitution in a massage parlor under investigation for human trafficking.  A highly successful political consultant, while awaiting trial for allegedly obstructing justice and lying to Congress, published photos of a federal judge that included the image of a firearm crosshairs target.  A handsome young actor with a successful career and promising future was charged with felony disorderly conduct for allegedly faking a hate crime against himself, apparently to advance his prospects by garnering public sympathy.  What gets into people?  That’s not a rhetorical question.  It’s hard to imagine what kind of flawed thinking leads someone to behave so badly – so foolishly.

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that each of the individuals I allude to is entitled to a presumption of innocence.  But if what appears to be true from a distance in those cases is indeed born out, one is left not only offended by the damage done to institutions of democracy and simple human decency, but also to wonder “what on earth gets into people’s heads?”  How does the human mind seemingly lose all sense of perspective?  How does any minuscule and dubious benefit of a moment in the spotlight or an instant of physical gratification compete in someone’s thinking with the damage to be inflicted on one’s reputation, on one’s family and colleagues, on one’s nation, on one’s neighbors and fellow human beings?  One might understand crimes committed in desperation.  One might understand crimes committed from ignorance as a result of a poor upbringing. We still don’t condone or tolerate bad behavior under those circumstances, but we can at least understand the motivation.  But the litany of alleged offenses I just recounted involved people who have everything, people willing to break very important and valuable rules of civilized society seeming just because they can – or thought they could.  With a wealth of resources at their disposal, and prospects for almost assured continued success and security, with little to gain and so much to lose, they just act out with utter disregard for the collateral damage they cause.

Now, I don’t for an instant want to suggest that consequential bad behavior is limited to the rich and famous.  Foolish arrogance and greed and entitlement certainly are not limited to the entertainment and sports elite.  There’s plenty of misanthropic behavior that never makes the news happening every day at the hands of ordinary people.  So, consider again that personal regrettable episode I asked you to recall a few minutes ago.  Why do you regret it?  Is it simply because you got caught, if indeed you were caught and called to account? Do you feel remorse for the consequences you brought to bear on others, or perhaps for the fate you did nothing to spare them from?  Is there some other reason you regret your choice?  And even more importantly, can you recognize the flaw in your thinking that lead you to behaving or fail to behave in the way you now regret?  We are, all of us, all prone to willful blindness and delusions of entitlement or exemption from rules that protect society. We all have a circuit breaker we can trip to turn off common sense when we’re presented with an opportunity that involves doing something at another’s expense.  What information did you ignore?  What lie did you tell yourself to justify your decision to engage or evade as you did and have now come to regret?  Did you tell yourself it’s a victimless crime?  Did you tell yourself it wasn’t your responsibility?  Did you tell yourself, “they had it coming?”  Did you tell yourself, “No one will find out?” Ask yourself as honestly as you can whether you knew better?

I promised not to ask you to tell me your story, but I’ll tell you one of mine.  I was in the homestretch of the return trip from a conference.  I don’t remember where I was coming from, but it was a long enough drive that I was getting back well past midnight.  Bleary eyed, I pulled into a rest area for some caffeine with something like 90 miles left.  I was in and out of the shelter where the vending machines were kept in less than 30 seconds, keeping it moving, anxious to get home.  Well, as I was getting back in the car, I noticed another vehicle had pulled in a few spots over.  The hood was up with steam coming off the engine and a pool of antifreeze spreading over the asphalt by the tires.  There was a young couple walking around the car looking stressed out and worried. And for my part I avoided eye contact, ducked my head in the car, turned the key and sped off, unwilling to be delayed getting home.  I’ve hated myself for that ever since.  I doubt I’ll ever forgive myself, because that was someone’s daughter and son-in-law, just as I am married to someone’s daughter and am someone’s son-in-law, and it would have cost me nothing to ask if they needed to borrow my cell phone to make a call or to offer them a lift to a service station to arrange for a tow or some-damned-how make sure they weren’t going to spend the night stranded. I knew better than to act as I did in that moment, and it seems to me that “foolish” is the very kindest word that could be used to describe my character in that situation.

If a fool is someone who ought to know better, a wise person is someone who learns the lessons of experience.  A wise person is someone who anticipates the consequences of their behavior without discounting the needs and rights of others involved.  So, what I’d encourage you to take away from this reflection is a willingness to embrace your remorse.  Own your guilt.  That proverb we heard at the beginning says, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  Honestly, I’m not convinced that there’s a big judge in the sky waiting to impose a sentence on me when my trial comes up on the docket. But there is some educational value to be gleaned from the shame I feel in letting down a neighbor in need.  Maybe the “fear of the lord” is as simple as the pain of a guilty conscience.  Maybe wisdom and instruction begins with the disciple of taking an honest look at the cost benefit ratio of your behavior, and foolishness amounts to ignoring that basic moral arithmetic.

Again, this reflection came to me in part in response to what Susan shared last week about challenging boundaries and pursuing creativity.  And what I’m saying is not at all an argument against creativity, but just a simple caution against selfishness and hubris when we focus merely on our furthering our own interest without consideration for others.  I’m not at all saying, “stay in your lane,” just, “pass with care.”