Friday, March 11, 2011

Fodder For Morality

From the NY Times this morning:

WASHINGTON — Statistics compiled by the American-led military mission in Afghanistan indicate that 2,537 civilians were killed and 5,594 were wounded in 2009 and 2010, according to a study released Thursday.
Official military statistics provided to Science magazine show that about 88 percent of civilian casualties in Afghanistan over the past two years were caused by insurgents, while about 12 percent were the fault of American and coalition forces.

What's the argument here, that they kill more innocent people than we do, so somehow we are "more right"?   Having spent most of my adult life as a serving military officer I understand full-well about civilian casualties in war, but this argument has no place in the public space.  Using innocent civilian statistics to somehow morally justify a nation's actions seems obscene to me.  Every civilian fatality, regardless of who is at fault, should be treated with the same moral importance as those of fallen U.S. service members, and not be used as fodder for who's right and wrong arguments.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Off The Cushion

Sitting in Starbucks this morning I was contemplating a topic for a blog post when a guy dressed in wanna-be military garb sits down beside me and announces, "Ya know, if you were here thirty minutes ago there wasn't a black person in here".  Bingo…. you're my blog post of the day.  Are you kidding me?!  I thought guys like this only existed in the movies, and certainly not in southwest Atlanta where the populace is well-over 90% African American.

For the next twenty minutes I was treated to an unsolicited ear-full of how when the gas prices go up all of the blacks are going to leave, and how all of the kids at the school bus stops have babies in their arms.  I struggled to exfiltrate myself from the conversation but part of me, like driving past a car wreck, wanted to hear this guy's destructive, hate-filled rant. 

I contemplated loving kindness and how this guy, as misguided as I believed he was, deserved my compassion.  It's easy to love the world's down-trodden and unfortunate, but when faced with someone that is the victim of his own limited mind, the task becomes much more difficult.  How do you show compassion for someone that you find so distasteful? 

The other take away for me was the question of why do I find his rant so offensive in the first place?  Clearly I'm attached to my viewpoints, and when confronted with such a dramatically different perspective I quickly retract and begin to judge and form opinions.

Buddhism is a wonderful thing, and when sitting on a cushion its simple to follow it's tenants.  Applying the same in the reality of a crowded Starbucks is a bit more challenging.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Good Vibrations

There are some people that radiate great energy and positive vibrations regardless of the circumstances.  Last night while attending a function in downtown Atlanta I watched a late 60-something Asian woman flit around the room with a hundred other guests at a banquet dinner.  She stood out to me because she carried with her a massive, beaming smile, and seemed to care little of what people thought of her.  To me, she was the walking personification of peace and self-confidence, my favorite two attributes in a person. 

The highlight for me was when the woman raided the dessert table even before people were settling in for their first course.  I laughed and commented that she may have her dinner courses mixed up, only to see her grin and retort, "No, it's everyone else that's mixed up".

Throughout the long evening I watched with great curiosity as this tiny woman continued to smile and walk her own path.  Towards the end of the event she left the function and ventured out into the nighttime on a solo exploration of the botanical garden's orchard exhibit, a wonderful display of moving through life on her own terms.  She made my night.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Boone Soon

I'm in the process of putting together a springtime cycling trip to Boone, North Carolina.  I plan to spend about a week riding through what I believe is one of the most special places on the east coast.  I've been to Boone a few times in the past and have always been struck by the natural beauty of the surrounding area.  What sealed the deal for me was in Lance Armstrong's biography, It's Not About the Bike, he spoke of riding in Boone after his comeback from cancer, stating that it was Boone that made him fall in love with cycling again. I'm excited.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Boundless Faith

What is the difference between having faith in something and having confidence in it?  Voltaire said, 'Faith is to believe in something which your reason tells you cannot be true; for if your reason approved of it, there could be no question of blind faith.'  On the other hand confidence is an assured expectation, not of something that cannot be touched, observed, but of what can be tested as experienced and understood personally.  This is why Buddhism shuns faith and embraces confidence.  The Buddha stated, 'Do not blindly believe what others say, even the Buddha. See for yourself what brings contentment, clarity, and peace. That is the path for you to follow.'

Theistic faith demands belief in things that cannot be known.  Direct knowledge and experience with the previously unknown now moves faith into the realm of confidence, therefor it can be said that knowledge destroys faith.  Does it work the other way around as well, can faith overcome knowledge?  Now we are in the world of miracles, the unexplained alteration of reality that runs counter to all knowledge.

Faith in my opinion, resides in the soul and is limitless while confidence emanates from the mind and is clearly bound by finite points.  Therefor one's confidence in himself or the world around him extends only so far as his personal observation and experience, while his faith appears to be endless.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Emergency Room For Sinners

Port au Prince's shattered Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption
On a recent trip to Knoxville, Tennessee I was trying to pull my Jeep out and merge into on-coming traffic that was letting out from monolithic christian church directly up the street.  To no avail, no one was going to let me in among the long line of cars.  In a moment of frustration I edged out a bit earlier than I should have and was greeted by a cacophony of horns.

My first reaction was, "You are all coming from church. Maybe you should turn around and pay greater attention to the sermon on compassion and loving kindness".  I suppose I expected a greater degree of compassion from a crowd that was just exiting a Sunday service. Adjectives that leaped to mind were "hypocritical" and "arrogant". 

Reading Timothy Keller's book, The Reason For God the author offered up this explanation, "Churches are hospitals for sinners, not museums for saints".  It all became clear reading Keller's words.  Why should I expect greater compassion from someone that is a devout attendee of a church service?  Would I expect to find healthy people in the hospital emergency room?  It was a good lesson.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Guilty Buddhism

I was challenged the other day about Buddhism's apparent failure to address the concept of guilt.  I sat with this for a while and read through what some noted scholars of Buddhism have written on the subject, and came to the conclusion that guilt is a man-made concept and not part of the inherent human condition. 

Guilt, as defined by one Buddhist scholar, Rudy Harderwijk, is "seeing or projecting one's mistakes, while not knowing what to do about them or refusing to correct them".  To paraphrase Harderwijk, Buddhism views this as a disturbing attitude, i.e. coming about from the practitioner that is not seeing the situation clearly.  Self-deprecating guilt may be seen as a complicated version of self-centeredness, which Buddhism addresses quite thoroughly.

Going back, the concept of guilt appears to be foreign to the pure human condition, having grown from it's prominent place in the Judeo/Christian tradition, e.g. the original sin.  Guilt of this type is learned, imposed by society and culture.  As noted by Harderwijk, " The Tibetans don't even have a word for it".  If this is the case guilt becomes a culturally imposed type of mental frustration, one which Buddhism teaches us to overcome through practice and seeing reality in its true form.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

One Honest Ninja

After parking my Jeep my 6-year old son decided that he was going to exit the vehicle via his open back seat window instead of through the door.  Being a Jeep its a long way down to the pavement so I told my ninja to open the door like a little man.  I few moments later I saw him standing on the ground but I had never heard his door open or close, so I asked him if he had crawled out of the window after I had told him not to. I could see him thinking about it and he finally confessed that he had.  I couldn't have been more proud of my son.  He chose to tell the hard truth instead of the easy lie, his moral compass was aligned correctly.

I've come to believe that morality and ethics have no relation to age nor intelligence.  As a matter of fact, if there is a relationship at all its probably inversely related. As an example, with increasing frequency, white-collar corruption seems to be the crime of choice of the baby boom generation.

How is it that intelligent people loose their moral compass that they once had when they were young?  Do some believe that ethics and morality are inherent within intelligence and therefore any decision that they make must be automatically ethical?  Maybe intelligence trumps morality and a few are somehow smarter than those that have spent lifetimes defining and framing ethical and moral issues.  I'm unsure.  All I know is that there is far too much dishonesty in our world, however we all thankfully have the power to change that, one truth at a time.

Addendum:  I posted to the blog and then went out on a long trail run.  During my jaunt through the woods I began to wonder where on the Spiritual-Intellectual-Physical triangle does morality and ethics lie?  It seems clear to me that they are more aligned with the spiritual rather than the intellectual, which explains why learning ethics in the classroom was so much noise for me.  You can't learn moral behavior and ethics without something touching your soul.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


I've been thinking about sacrifice a lot lately, specifically as it applies to long-term goals.  I grew up an athlete and it was in dusty, deserted gyms that I began to learn this lesson, one that had me give up much in order to achieve my long-term goal of being a scholarship collage athlete.  Many a bright and sunny summer day were spent alone in an unused gym working on ball handling skills and jump shots.  In the end, I prevailed and achieved my adolescent goal.  Was it worth it?  I believe it was insofar as it set a lifetime pattern of not grabbing at immediate desires at the expense of long-term goals.

Today I look back on my life and see this pattern repeated over and over again, my Special Forces career, two graduate schools, Ironman triathlon, emergency medicine, etc.  Along the way I've sacrificed horrendously to be able to achieve those goals.  Again, was it worth it?  Only time will tell.  Catch me at the end of my days and I'll let you know.

Of course the desire for the long-term runs counter to some basic Buddhist principles of living in the present moment and letting go of your attachment to desires.  This has been the subject of great contemplation lately.  Should I give up that bowl of ice cream for dessert in pursuit of my goal of running a sub-10 hour Ironman?  What about passing on spending time with my parents so that I can get a long weekend of workouts in?  Where does the line get drawn?  Again, sacrifice, balance, the Middle Way.  Much to consider.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Not long ago I was the lead paramedic on a cardiac arrest of an elderly woman who had collapsed in her home.  When I arrived the woman's frantic son was looking on as two fire department paramedics and an EMT were starting CPR and additional advanced life-support treatments.  I could see the terror in his eyes as his mother lay on her back in the middle of her living room.  He paced back and forth asking questions, looking to do anything that he could to help, to make a difference.

As the lead paramedic this was my scene to control and orchestrate; decisions were made and treatments started according to the very latest in resuscitation literature and guidelines.  The woman was placed in the ambulance with ongoing good CPR by one of the EMTs; rhythm strips, IV's, drugs, endotracheal tube, shocks, more drugs.  Despite our efforts the woman wasn't responding and was pronounced shortly after our arrival at the hospital.

Sitting alone in the ambulance I worked on my report trying to remember the details of the call.  Quickly I became hyper-critical of my performance, thinking about what I could have done differently, anything that would have led to a better outcome.  I beat myself up for several minutes going over the events in my mind, until finally I looked down at my clipboard and saw the woman's smiling face on her drivers license staring up at me.  I remembered that I had hastily grabbed the card from her son so that at least I would have a name when I arrived at the hospital.  She smiled at me as if to say, "Hey you did the very best that you could, so stop beating yourself up".  In a moment I realized that the call wasn't about me and my performance but rather the woman who was somehow forgiving me, smiling from a piece of plastic.  I pushed my report aside and strode back into the hospital to seek out her son.  I think that's what she would have wanted me to do.