Sparring with Truth?

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Truth-telling is an activity highly regarded in human interchange. It bonds people together when they can trust that everyone in possession of the truth is conscientious in conveying it to others. Parents try to inculcate a respect for it in their children. It is not always easy to tell the truth even though the truth is a highly-regarded value, for sometimes such value, while working to the advantage of some, also causes some disadvantage to others. So hiding or covering the truth is a temptation for one who may fear him or herself being harmed by the truth.

So attempts have always been made to shade or diminish the truth, but in a way that, should they be discovered, they don’t necessarily fall into the category of a bald or outright lie. These are defense mechanisms against the severely damaging charge that one is a liar. There are few accusations that are more damaging to our reputation than the charge that one is a liar. It besmirches nearly every transaction in which one engages.   But truthfulness is a universal value that plays out in every activity in which one commits oneself. Haven’t we heard that “…the truth will set you free?” (Jer. 8.32) And to be less than free in living one’s life makes life miserable because one must take precautions to remember one’s deviations from the truth.

th-7The issue of such approximations to the truth may describe many of our transactions in which “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is expected from us by those dealing with us.   In courts of law, where the truth of the matter is central to the case, the truthfulness of remarks is of such significance that an extra step is taken to guarantee that the truth is being told. So litigants are asked to take an oath by placing their hand on the bible and stating they are telling the truth, “so help me God.” This increases the seriousness of an obligation to tell the truth.

Amid this concern lies the temptation, if not to lie, but to reshape the truth for our own benefit. It can be traced to our fear of suffering injury if the full disclosure of truth is required in my testimony. Or it may owe to our disagreement with the wording used in the legal formulas placed before me, which I regard as wrong and misinformed. Or it may elicit an answer from me that is cleverly concocted. So, to protect my interests I may shade or modify the full intent of the statement placed before me.

Sometimes an exaggeration on my part may be used to shave the full impact of the statement to which I am being asked to accept as true and accurate. An exaggeration is often not a complete reversal of the truth of something, but it may be a modification of the truth to the point where others may be led to wonder whether it’s the full truth. Or it is possible at times to shade the truth without completely denying it, as in admitting you threw peanuts in the river, without clarifying that Peanuts is the name of someone (whom, one knows, can’t swim), or in the case of a hearing- impaired parent questioning a young person told to return home by 10:00 pm, what time of the night it is, upon hearing his or her return, who responds that it is plenty after 10:00, hoping it would be understood as twenty after 10:00. Or the case of the NBC newscaster, Brian Williams, who guilded his account of participating in a military operation in Iraq without clarifying that this was not an immediate involvement, but somewhat remote. All of these examples, while true, to an extent, need various degrees of clarification to satisfy the requirement of telling the truth. There was an element of exaggeration in each of them likely leading listeners to think they were hearing the truth while, as a matter of fact, they were hearing distorted versions of the truth.

So the question becomes: were each of these a substantial violation of the truth? If truth-telling is an important way of bonding with and trusting others, do these examples undercut and injure ways of relating to others? Is it a violation of the truth to boast about one’s background or education or experiences or connections? If others know I tend to magnify my accomplishments, and make provision for that in dealing with me, so that deception is usually not the outcome of an arrangement we make with one another, is that nonetheless the equivalent of a lie? If I am placed under oath to tell the truth in a court of law, and am cleverly maneuvered by manipulating officials, am I lying to evade their misleading techniques by telling part of the truth but not all of the truth?

Telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth: is this a hard and fast rule of life and conduct in all life’s situations, or is it appropriate to shape responses to situations that are appropriate to that situation, leaving to the experience and skill of others the task of appropriating the truth they seek from the remarks I provide? During His trial and interrogation before Pilate, Jesus is asked: “Are you the king of the Jews?” To this Jesus responded: “Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?” (Jn. 18.33-34) And a bit later Pilate repeats: “Then you are a king?”, to which Jesus responded: “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (Jn 37-38). Is Jesus here sparring with Pilate about the truth? Are there occasions for us to do so?

Ambition: Virtue or Vice

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.Where would the world be without some ambitious people? We think of the marvelous benefits we enjoy as a result of ambitious people intrigued by the thought of trying to implement a new idea they’ve had. Ambitious people usually seem to be the creative sort, who are driven to try out a pathway for themselves that is somewhat unique. However, this is not necessary, since the ambitious also enjoy whatever is new and challenging for them, regardless of how many others have preceded them in attempting the same thing, like climbing a very high mountain.

At times there are ambitious types who want to get ahead, so that where others are “at” determine how ambition plays out in their lives. But not all. For there are some people who have an inner drive and determination to succeed, to do something different or unique. It is part of their makeup, perhaps better called a gift or inner drive that is part of who they are.

Rock climber at sunset background. Sport and active life

There are athletic types, for instance runners, whose ambition is to be the best in their school, or their city. It’s an inner drive, already implanted in them without their striving to acquire it. In their case, ambition is a gift or endowment that makes a person who she or he is. It is competitive but its inner energy is less focused on others in an effort to best them, but more on oneself and the inner satisfaction of using to its maximum a gift or talent one has, regardless of the competitive aspect. So often ambition is focused on doing one’s personal best, regardless of others.

Ambition is the drive to excel. And it revels in doing so. It has its origin within oneself but its termination point is usually outside oneself: to be the best pianist I can be, or to be the most humorous person , or the most successful salesperson, or the most caring surgeon. None of these accomplishments would be possible without ambition. And while there is personal satisfaction in achieving these goals, often connected with this sense of accomplishment is the good that one can do—a good that is other-oriented. It’s good, not just for oneself, but it’s good for others too.

To be engaged in an activity simply because I enjoy it, with little or no thought as to whether I am successful at it, is not to be overlooked. I may belong to a bowling team comprised of those, myself included, who bowl for sheer enjoyment, relaxation, and fellowship with others who also bowl.   The ambition operative here is simply to “have fun”, to unwind, to relax. This is a form of ambition not to be overlooked. In the long run, ambition can simply be a mode of self-expression. It is not necessary to think of ambition in terms of others.

In this season of political activity, we note men and women ambitious to gain prominence in an effort to secure a victory that will help them win an office or position in various levels of government. To call them ambitious is not necessarily a criticism. They may be ambitious because they think they have the talent and gifts to improve the lives of people in view of the ideas the political candidate would bring to a position, should he or she win the election.

In the last analysis, ambition should be considered a gift of God, or an endowment, or a skill, along with a keen intelligence, a quick wit, a strong character or a charming personality. So it will undoubtedly come up for scrutiny at the Last Judgment, together with other traits and characteristics of our life. And the judgment leveled on us may, surprisingly, not necessarily consist of the charge that we were overly ambitious, but also that we were not ambitious enough, that is, we did not sufficiently recognize or develop or utilize our ambition, since it was a gift of God.

We might look to Jesus Christ and ask the question under consideration here: was He ambitious? Did He have a burning desire to achieve a goal or task? Did He exhibit any signs of His determination to achieve it? Certainly, His adversaries, among the Jewish leadership, considered Him exceedingly ambitious in the claims He seemed to be making about Himself (Jn. 6.42). and was He not still just a boy when, on the occasion of “being lost in the temple”, He responded to His mother’s mild complaint: “your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety”, by asking: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2.48-49) Here Jesus speaks of a strong ambition of His, to identify Himself with His Father’s program. And we recall His opening words at the Last supper: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…” (Lk 22.15), indicating an ambition He had been planning as the grand finale of His life’s work. So from the beginning till the end of His life among us He had compelling ambitions driving Him to significant actions.

They convey to us the truth that Jesus, like us, harbored ambitions within Himself. So we need not speak of being victims of our ambitions. Rather, we should think of being utilizers of the ambitions with which God endowed us to do what He had in mind when He enriched us with them.

On The Importance of Content

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

In 1974, Patty Hearst, grand-daughter of William Randolph Hearst, a publishing magnate on the west coast, heading up the largest newspaper establishment in the country at the time, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in San Francisco, and held captive. Her captivity lasted for 17 months, and eventually the question arose as to whether all this occurred against her will, or did she, perhaps through a brain-washing technique, gradually consent to the activities and rationale of this radical criminal organization?

If her consent could be proven and established, would that implicate her in the activities of the SLA, which, in large part, were criminal in nature. That is to say, in agreeing to join its membership, she was in agreement with its agenda. Her eventual consent would have stood out as the primary issue, regardless of what eventuated subsequently from her membership. One incriminating action that spelled out the criminal agenda of the SLA and her obvious role in it involved the hold-up of a bank that was at least partially photographed, showing her holding a machine gun in the course of the robbery. Was her consent to join the SLA, if it occurred, the dominant factor controlling whatever else occurred subsequently, such as her role in some of the criminal activity the SLA performed, such as this bank robbery, so that the focus of our attention and concern should be on her consent to join, rather than any of the other subsequent activities engaged in by the SLA? Or was she a victim of some type of brain-washing during her captivity which would have exonerated her from any voluntary membership of the organization and any subsequent law-breaking, whatever that might have been? In this scenario, it would have been the presence and quality of her consent to membership in the SLA more than any subsequent wrongful activity that would be the dominant consideration.

As a matter of fact, following her capture and separation from the SLA, she was found guilty of bank robbery, and sentenced to seven years in prison, though after two years President Carter commuted the remainder of her sentence.   So even the aftermath of this episode shows the mixed reaction to the role of her initial consent in ascertaining the morality of her actions, more than any specific activities in which she and the SLA subsequently engaged. Does its presence or its absence make all the difference in making such a judgment?

Comparable questions arise around other types of behavior. E.g., is a sexual act between an unmarried (or married) man and a woman good if both agree to it, or is it evil regardless of the presence or absence of consent on the part of either party? In the current legal debate on rape, it is the presence or absence of consent that determines a judgment about the goodness or evil of such an action, in the eyes of the law. But in another context (ethics, religious belief) the presence or absence of consent may not be the sole determinant of the goodness or evil of the action.

Or, in a professional prize fight, where one boxer is being mercilessly beaten to a pulp by the other boxer, does the willingness of the winning opponent to continue the fight, and the losing boxer’s agreement with this (e.g., for the sake of the money), justify the referee in extending the fight, regardless of the injury being inflicted or sustained by the boxers?

Or in a casino, does a player’s willingness to continue gambling regardless of the losses he/she is sustaining justify “the house” in accommodating the losing player’s willing consent or is something else needed to make an adequate moral assessment of the action underway?

In each of these cases, is the crucial issue the consent of a participant to an action or situation sufficient to reduce or eliminate assignment of any significant evil to an action agreed to, whether the context be one of captivity or sexual conduct or bodily injury or loss of property? And does the presence of two or more participants in the kind of actions just described make any difference in assessing the presence or absence of goodness in the situations described? Or does the agreement of two parties to any loss or injury underway constitute the central issue in establishing the morality of an action? The issue is one of CONSENT to an injury one sustains, and whether its presence or absence is sufficient to legitimate or not the action, or is something more needed to render it legitimate and justifiable.

In the Catholic tradition, of course, something more than consent is called for to legitimate any action (or omission) fully engaging any person. While consent is necessary, it alone is insufficient to make an action good or evil. We also need some content to what consent applies, such as, for instance, the ten commandments provide. But In a society where the rule of civil law is important, the presence or absence of consent to a situation seems to be paramount, so that litigation often proves to be the last and best determinant of the acceptability or unacceptability of an action, or its omission.

At the last judgment, Jesus teaches us that it’s not just the issue of willing consent to be of help when situations call for it, but it is also the ability to recognize needy situations presenting themselves to us (“when did we see you hungry, or naked, or imprisoned?”, Mt. 25.31, ff.). It is not “consent to whatever…” but consent to certain specific issues that determine one’s entrance into the kingdom.

Consent is important, but it needs content.

2016 Time to Let the Wind Blow

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

The New Year (2016) has just rounded the corner, putting us again to the task of a new series of resolutions about making life become better, bigger, and happier than it has been. It’s remarkable that so many of us go through this routine year after year, reformulating the resolutions about what we’re going to be and do. But we seldom succeed. If we compared this exercise to a ball player’s batting average, it would be around 180. And this is nothing to brag about.

Perhaps we have to engage in this process differently, for we are not hitting the ball successfully. This process could possibly begin with an automobile drive through some areas of the countryside, in a number of our states, that have begun to feature huge windmills, sometimes extending over large areas of land for several miles–gigantic windmills, with impressive dimensions extending over several miles, presenting what initially stand as an ugly eyesight, compared to the pleasant farmland they’ve replaced. But, their saving feature is that they’re productive energy resources, which more than compensate those who have invested time, money, genius and perseverance in supporting this new energy resource, to complement traditional energy resources that are diminishing, such as coal, oil, gas, waterways. For wind can be an effective and economic generator of electric power, for instance.

Why is it that it took us so long to discover and take advantage of such an available energy resource? For the Dutch have successfully done so for decades. Surely we have felt the power of wind sweeping across the landscape, bending tree limbs to the point of breaking, even stopping us in our tracks, especially if we live in such windswept areas as residents of the “windy city” do.

Eventually a consortium of like-minded persons emerged to collaborate to take advantage of this overlooked energy resource, developing it into a helpful energy source to meet our energy needs. And, for the most part, this resource is not significantly injurious to the landscape, other than withdrawing the land on which it sits from agricultural use, and, in the estimation of some, turning it into an ugly blemish on what had been a pleasing pastoral scene.

It is likely that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter extolling the role of mother nature in our overall well-being can strengthen this innovative development, supporting his attempt to elevate our esteem of nature in our overall assessment of helps available to us to live in a way that is responsive to our available resources. In recent decades, we have been so preoccupied with improving on what nature can provide us in our effort to lead satisfactory lives that we have left unexplored and untapped resources untapped within nature, that can reward our attention. The Catholic tradition in the area of moral theology has called upon “natural law” as a fundamental guide in discerning goodness and evil in human behavior and conduct, and natural law is nothing other than an appreciation of mother nature to help us in addressing the dilemmas of moral goodness and evil. The Pope’s letter, entitled LODATO SI, (“Worthy of praise and esteem”) carries on this tradition of appreciating nature in its genesis and development as instructive in our understanding of how things ought to be.

So, as we stand on the cusp of a New Year in our lives, we again face the formidable task of making this year better than previous years have been. The “discovery” of wind-power as an answer to our diminishing energy supply should bolster our conviction that ways and means are available, remaining to be (re-)discovered, in our effort to fortify New Year resolutions to achieve some improvements in our lives, possibly goals that we have consistently failed to accomplish. The reassessment of wind-power is a simple example of an overlooked resource, in this regard. We may be recharting a nautical development that itself was an improvement on sailing the seas, replacing the wind-dependent sailing vessel with the steam engine. It may call for a renewed appreciation of one of nature’s primal forces (the wind) to reappropriate a place in powering over the oceans, in conjunction with nuclear generated sources of power and energy.

To enrich our appreciation of nature’s resiliency as an energy resource, we can enrich it with a faith reflection pat to the purpose of commencing a New Year enriched with God’s role in empowering us. This flows from our Catholics, and indeed Christian, understanding of the mystery of God as trinitarian, that is, as one God Who is a trinity of Persons. And our appreciation of One of these Persons as the Spirit of God, whom we frequently identify as God the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. For the most part, most of us have a poor record at acknowledging the role of the Holy Spirit, in our lives, perhaps in a way comparable to our recent oversight of the significance of wind as an empowering element in mother nature. And, yet as God’s Holy Spirit, He is identified as the energy, the power, and the pent-up potential of God available to us throughout our life. He is the divine resource to move us ever closer to our destiny with God facing us at death. We might enrich our New Year’s resolutions by  invoking God’s Holy Spirit to empower us in this New Year of 2016. For the Holy Spirit, as God, is an inexhaustible energy resource Whose power is comparable to wind, for did not those assembled together on Pentecost Sunday share this experience: “…there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were…and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…”? (Acts2.1-4)

In the Meantime

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

During the 2nd WW the term “quisling” was used as an accusation, originating in Norway, against fellow-countrymen who “cooperated” with the enemy in some form or fashion. The term “collaborator” has also been used. It could be a serious charge, and, if proven, could subject the accused to some serious penalties, such as execution, imprisonment, or the loss of reputation and esteem in one’s native land. It was a derisive, demeaning term, applicable to people like Judas, in the gospel story, or Benedict Arnold in the Revolutionary War.

Cooperation, another term, is usually confined to issues of evil (not good), and is not always easy to establish. It is easier “said” than “done”, i.e., the charge of being a collaborator in a morally evil action is easier to make than to establish it. While flagrant instances of it may be easy enough to establish, this is not so with lesser degrees of cooperation in evil. The complicating thing about cooperation is that there is always another person involved in it, who, as a matter of fact, is the main culprit. The one who cooperates is really not in total command of the scenario but operates in a “helping” mode.

As a result, it’s easier to identify the major player in a complex situation, than it is those who may be collaborators or cooperators in it. For in such a scenario, the involvement of secondary agents admits of shades of grey.

A major collaborator is one who is necessary for the action to take place. While not being the main agent, such a one is so essential to its accomplishment that should he or she falter, the entire operation is in jeopardy. During the Civil War, the accidental shooting of General Stonewall Jackson by one of his own men was probably a main reason why Lee’s effort at Gettysburg failed. For Jackson was usually the centerpiece of Lee’s strategy as his major collaborator.

In a complex society such as ours, growing ever more so with each advance in electronic and computerized developments, the phenomenon of cooperation in the deeds of others is difficult to determine. Character assassination, for example, can take place surreptitiously in an electronic medium, beginning with one person but quickly joined in by others, so that the effort at assigning responsibility among the multiple participants collaborating in this event is difficult. Perhaps this is the reason why Pope Francis has so frequently condemned gossip in his remarks, having in mind a traditional mode of collaboration in its modern garb.

Usually, the more essential that a collaborator is to the performance of an action, the more responsibility falls on the shoulders of that person. But where “many hands” have helped to bring about an operation, then parceling out responsibility for it among all these individuals is more challenging.

It is also important to realize that cooperation in another’s action can take place by what one does not do, as well as by what one does. If I am part of a group in which one individual is the dominant agent, as, for instance, talking about another (absent) person in a belittling or besmirching way, and if I know it to be totally or even partially false, without doing anything to correct a false and hurtful denunciation, then I am a collaborator in the resulting harm. While not the main agent of the injury that is inflicted, nor even the only one in the group recognizing the harm that is taking place, my failure to act makes me partially responsible for the defamation of character that ensues, especially if my testimony could have offset some of the harm resulting from the damaging remarks.

Our contemporary society is complex. If I invest assets in a profitable company that has a reputation for polluting the environment, or manufacturing military equipment/weaponry that figure prominently in the prosecution of a military venture, I am a collaborator in whatever moral evil might be involved in this enterprise. Of course, there are usually scores of other investors, not just myself, so I am not a necessary component in the harm that is being done. For I can divest myself from this enterprise  without causing the unfortunate procedure to discontinue. This is an instance where my collaboration is minimal, even insignificant, so my moral responsibility is also small.

Given the dimensions of what cooperation in the deeds of others can assume in contemporary society, the more scrupulous among us can unduly fret over the extent of our participation in actions that others generate and sustain, and worry too much about the level of our responsibility, for instance, in the veritable explosion of environmentally polluting procedures produced by the manufacturing industry.

The only guaranteed way of avoiding responsibility for this maze of harmful pollutants is to exit the universe we inhabit, which, of course, we will all likely be able to do, eventually. But, in the meantime, we can improve our sensitivity to the role we might be playing, no matter how feeble, in the bothersome issue of collaborating in a host of harmful situations.

Undermining the Entire Moral Code

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Consent is a slippery eel to get ahold of, in matters of right and wrong.   This is true whether it is the consent of a single individual, or of more than one individual. Consent is regarded as approval of a course of action, or of its omission.

In the case of an individual’s consent to something, for instance, to accompany someone to a ballgame, a person can honestly wonder, later on, whether one really agreed to do this, or not, or was merely suggesting a possibility of doing so. In a more formal setting, of course, like selling one’s house to another, the issue of consent on the part of either party, whether it’s making an offer to sell, or an agreement to purchase, a document is usually at hand to verify, by signature, whether both parties consented to this transaction. But in less formal arrangements, one or the other party can later on honestly put the question: did I really agree to do this?

Consent is always important in determining how seriously one embedded him or herself in a remark that was made. It can be a matter of personal integrity when one’s word is “on the line”, whether interpersonally before another, or more formally, in an arrangement where others were present to substantiate an agreement. For one who is sensitive about the standing he or she enjoys in society, the status of “one’s word” in another’s estimation is important, whether there’s a document to substantiate it or not. At times a firm handshake or a straightforward “looking another in the eye” is all that is needed to support consent to a transaction.

But, it is one thing to give one’s consent to another in a setting where people are more or less known to one another, but it is a different matter in situations where the people involved are virtually strangers to one another. In a nation whose population has now moved beyond 300,000,000 persons, it is more difficult to establish one’s trustworthiness in consenting to an arrangement than to do so in a nation whose population was considerably smaller, decades ago. It is comparable to a transaction among a group of virtual strangers, as compared to one made among several familiar associates.

As a consequence, consent is becoming more of an issue in contemporary society, with more and more reliance being placed on proper documentation establishing the veracity of consent to a transaction. The legality of an agreement between people is assuming ever more prominent status in certifying that a transaction is trustworthy or not.

But what about the moral status of behavior involving several persons? The issues presented above are being addressed more in terms of their legality than in terms of their goodness or evil. Of course, legality and morality don’t have to be opposed to one another. One would like to think that concern about the legality of an action is tantamount to its moral status as well, but such is not always the case.

An instance of this is the growing concern about incidents of rape on college campuses, or, for that matter, in any comparable settings. These incidents are coming to center more and more around the presence or absence of consent on the part of the one designated the “victim” in such situations. If it can be established that there was an absence of consent on the part of one involved in the incident, then the crime of rape was committed. And it can be punished.

From the legal point of view, this is quite appropriate, based on the lack of consent of one party to the incident. Lack of consent establishes one as a victim of an assault and of injury, which should be legally punished. But the frequency with which this is occurring based on its illegality from the viewpoint of lack of consent emphasizes the presence or absence of consent as the defining issue in addressing these rape incidents. The clear implication is that establishing the presence or absence of consent on the part of the “victim” is sufficient or not to validate the legality of the incident. This means that “consent” is the defining factor in the acceptance or rejection of such sexual behavior.

But reflection leads many of us to deny that consent is the deciding issue in judging the fuller status of sexual action between consenting adults, and to worry that the issue of consent to sexual activity is the primary determining factor in evaluating its appropriateness or acceptability. For when the legality of human behavior becomes so important that it tends to spill over into the entire moral code of conduct, as in the consent issue, it can undermine the entire moral code, as if consenting to engage in an activity suffices to establish its morality. It’s not what we can find acceptable but what God has spelled out for us that constitutes the moral status of our behavior.

Some Say Yes–Some Say No

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Is an exaggeration a lie? YES, say some. It is an untruth and a deception. It misinforms the listener and may lead him or her into a relationship with another that is harmful because it misrepresents the competency or reliability of the one formulating the exaggeration. As a result, the listener may place his/her trust in a speaker based on misinformation about the truthfulness of a remark that is exaggerated. And misplaced trust may result in injury or damage to the hearer, usually financial in nature, if the listener invests money in a program that has been misrepresented, or, may sour a listener on personal exchanges across the board, making many of them suspect and unreliable.

But others say No. An exaggeration is not a lie, at least not necessarily so. It is often based upon a truth, which may be somewhat extenuated. Especially when it comes from someone who is well known for embellishing the facts, an exaggeration often lends, not deceit, but interest and fascination to a person’s remarks, and adds a certain attractiveness to what may otherwise be a rather dull or unimpressive conversation. A party is often enhanced by the presence of a guest skilled in the art of exaggeration, which may provide a certain glow or warmth of fellowship among party-goers, thereby cementing human relationships.

The practice of exaggeration is not a modern development. The well-known incident of “chicken little” has an ancient pedigree, describing the chicken on whose head a pebble or drop of water falls, leading the chick to exclaim loudly and clearly that “the sky is falling”, to everyone’s dismay.   Now this is a classical example of an exaggeration, for the sky was obviously not falling. No harm was done, though possibly the heart rate of some bystanders increased and an element of fear may have raced through them. But was it a lie, or a mischief-maker?

And, in more recent times, October 30, 1938, to be exact, the radio announcer Orson Welles made his impressive announcement over the radio air-waves that Martians were invading our planet in droves, intent upon subduing us. Given his acting and rhetorical skills, Welles adroitly interrupted the scheduled newscast with this stunning piece of information, leaving at least some of his listeners dumb-founded and even frightened. A bit of an exaggeration, obvious to some, but apparently not obvious enough to others. Was this a lie?

And perhaps some of us have been admonished against any youthful playfulness, or perhaps foolishness, or possibly malevolence, leading us to yell out FIRE, FIRE! in a crowded theater, where people will possibly react to this in a stampede or at least a paralyzing fright. Can this be dismissed as a harmless exaggeration, obviously untrue and so just a prank?

So what is the difference, if any, between a lie and an exaggeration? Is it fundamentally a distortion of the truth, whether it misleads others or not, or is it simply an enhancement of the facts to make them more interesting to the listeners around us? In this latter alternative, it might actually be a welcome boost to a party that is beginning to grow dull and boring.

Yet, recent incidents involving prominent citizens of our country have aroused indignation and reprehension of the perpetrators of exaggeration, such as that of Brian Williams, the lead announcer of NBC evening news, who apparently enhanced his role in covering the news associated with our military engagement in Iraq. This breach of reportorial ethics was considered quite damaging to the trust listeners place in the accuracy and truthfulness of the newscasting profession.   And there have been other recent incidents of prominent military personnel and government officials engaging in self-enhancing comments, often about their military exploits, and this too has been regarded as injurious to the qualities of trustworthiness and competence expected of people occupying significant public positions.

A traditional axiom in commercial transactions between merchants and customers, interested in purchasing an item from the merchant, is: “caveat emptor”, a Latin phrase meaning: “let the buyer take care/be on guard”.   Obviously a merchant wants to enhance the product he or she is selling so as to complete a sale. But it is also obvious, at least to an experienced customer, that he/she should be “on guard”, noting any exaggerations made by the merchant on behalf of the product. Is there anything harmful taking place in an exchange of this kind, or is it simply an exaggeration that both parties recognize and deal with? In other words, an acceptable practice. But nonetheless, a warning, such as Jesus pronounced in the gospels: “Be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10.16), helps to distinguish fact from fiction, or truth from exaggeration.


The Cost(s) of Freedom

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

“Fidelity to choice is the condition for freedom.” This sounds restrictive and confining: sticking with a choice made years ago. Is that reasonable? Is it desirable? Is it possible?

Many of us think otherwise of freedom. We regard it as the power to break free of constraints, to remake the boundaries which we adopted, perhaps years ago, when “things were different”. An example would be the practice of gerrymandering by legislative bodies, such as our Congress, consisting of remaking the geographical political boundaries of a state to better conform the size of a voting unit with the numbers of voters within that unit, so as to more or less equalize the numbers of the voting population of each unit within any given state. Fidelity to an earlier decision to enact certain geographical voting blocks, designed to safeguard the impact of one’s freedom to influence the vote, can eventually impede freedom if more and more voters move into that voting block, thereby watering down the influence of my freedom through voting. However, this diminishment of freedom might justify departing from the original boundaries of the voting unit, and justify a change—in the name of freedom. Obviously, as at times happens, gerrymandering can be manipulated to unduly diminish the impact of one’s voting freedom, rather than protect it. But generally fidelity to choice is the condition for freedom. To waffle on such fidelity is to diminish freedom.

But fidelity to the exercise of one’s free choice can lead to bizarre situations. A devout religious believer, remaining steadfast in his/her religious beliefs, can be persecuted for this, and, in despotic governments, imprisoned for fidelity to one’s religious convictions. The exercise of religious freedom in this case may seem to result in the loss of freedom in another dimension. But would not reneging on one’s fidelity to a religious choice, in an effort to preserve one’s political freedom, actually undercut whatever freedom one tried to achieve in this way? Or is not fidelity to religious convictions the only way to preserve and actually enhance one’s freedom in the fullest sense, despite an apparent loss of freedom? There have been some beautiful testimonials by those imprisoned for their fidelity to religious (or political) choices, testifying to their experiencing a new dimension of freedom enjoyed within prison despite confinement there. On the other hand, would one truly experience freedom by backing off a religious commitment?

Or fidelity to a commitment made to another person. This is one of the most common forms of fidelity to a bonding that one has freely entered. Marriage, of course, comes to mind, but there are a variety of other kinds of personal commitments that punctuate our lives. Sometimes these occur in the family, as when a parent spontaneously promises a child an outing or a special treat. Or a neighbor freely promising to return a piece of equipment borrowed for some task. Interestingly, these instances of freedom generate the context of an obligation to fidelity: fidelity to return what one has received. In these instances, freedom generates obligation; it does not lay the groundwork exemption from obligation. It is difficult to think of any situation one has freely entered that does not, somewhere along the line, make demands on one receiving a favor. To engage another person in any enterprise whatever, regardless of the mention of obligation, factually generates obligation somewhere along the line. Even a simple “Good Morning” elicits a “Good Morning” in return.   Fidelity to choices evident in personal exchanges generates its own set of commitments. The choice operative at the heart of freedom generates obligation.

Gerrymandering at its best seeks to expand freedom for more persons but it puts others under constraints, not to be avoided. Religious convictions express one’s freedom before God, but this freedom is not enhanced by curtailing it so as to avoid imprisonment through denying one’s religious convictions.   Even living (presumably freely) with myself exacts commitments to myself which cannot be disregarded without damage to that freedom. Personal interactions beget implicit promises, which can’t be avoided by dismissing them lightly. Fidelity to choice (an expression of freedom) is the condition for freedom. Freedom begets its own set of rules.

Checking in with A Higher Authority

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

We deal with differences of opinion, on a variety of issues, practically daily. Whether it’s newscasters on weather stations, or sports announcers/writers for athletic teams, or politicians representing different parties, we encounter varying positions.

Sometimes helps are available for coping with disagreements. It is said of President Kennedy that when he ate breakfast, he read two newspapers usually taking divergent views on issues, such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, often splitting the difference in an effort to come closer to the best understanding achievable. At other times, a certain accommodation is allowed for geographical reasons, such as the difference of opinion regarding baseball teams, as it plays out in the city of Chicago, for example, with the preference of north-siders for the Cubs and of south-siders for the White Sox being tolerated for such regional variations. And then the perennial comparison of the sexes, as to who is the smarter, the more sympathetic, the more religious, the more frugal, etc., goes on endlessly.

A more serious difference of opinion, however, occurs periodically, as in the groundhog family, specifically, its protocol for formulating a weather forecast, through the services of such experts as the well-known Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania, and the lesser known General Beauregard Lee of Georgia.   They both come out of their burrows, where they have hibernated, in early February and, on the basis of their skill in predicting weather trends, forecast the date of spring’s arrival for that year. Frequently, they agree, though not always so, since regional factors can be identified to explain their differences.

Though variations of opinion can often be explained by the convictions of those holding them, they can also be traced to the opaqueness of the issue under discussion. In addition, the adroitness of the discussants of an issue also enters the picture. Sincere efforts to understand another’s position, on the part of all those involved, often result in a different outcome from that originally held by each of the discussants.

At the recent extraordinary synod of bishops, in Rome, there was significant difference of opinion among them about relaxing the traditional position of the church, disallowing divorced and remarried (without an annulment) Catholics from receiving the eucharist. At the upcoming ordinary synod of bishops, this conversation will be vetted again, and it will be interesting to see whether any of the bishops have, in the interlude, changed their positions.

The early church also saw its share of disagreements among the church leadership of that era. Peter and Paul disagreed, at least in practice, over the requirement of circumcision for those entering the church from the gentile world, since, up to that time, all the early Christians were converts from Judaism. In a less contentious matter, at least for that early period of time, the issue of slavery, Paul offered his opinion to Philemon about Onesimus, the former’s escaped slave, now that both of them were Christian. While Paul had Onesimus return to his master, he sought to ameliorate the latter’s situation. We don’t know the outcome of this effort at softening a contentious situation. And Jesus Himself had some very clear ideas about the procedure to follow when disagreements occur between people, through a series of steps, concluding with a final appeal to the church(Mt. 18.15, ff.).

The art of compromise often rescues participants locked in a dispute. Compromise presumes give and take on the part of all involved in a disagreement. It usually doesn’t work when just one of the participants compromises, since that seems equivalent to “giving in”. Successful labor contract arrangements are usually reached by way of compromise, as in negotiations between owners and players of a baseball franchise. Each participant gives a little, and gains a little. The inability or refusal to compromise is seldom admirable unless a matter of clairvoyant principle is at stake, just as is the tendency of one party, as in a marriage, to always compromise.

Back to  to evenPunxsutawney Phil and General Beauregard Lee: should they ever seriously disagree about seasonal changes, they can always revert to the suggestion of Jesus, above,to eventually consult a higher authority, such as THE FARMERS ALMANAC.