Wisdom of Solomon

Then the king said: “One woman claims, ‘This, the living one is my son, the dead one is yours.’ The other answers, ‘No! The dead one is your son, the living one is mine.'” The king continued, “Get me a sword.” When they brought the sword before the king, he said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other.” The woman whose son was alive, because she was stirred with compassion for her son, said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby — do not kill it!”  (I Kings 3:23-26)

When I was growing up, I didn’t want fame or fortune; I wanted wisdom. From the first time I heard the story of King Solomon and the two women related in I Kings, my heart yearned for wisdom. This longing was reinforced in junior high when we studied Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Great Stone Face.” Wisdom, it was apparent to me, was the most desirable attribute we could cultivate in this life.

Wisdom is one of the spiritual gifts, which is convenient for me, since my spiritual journey is the defining characteristic of my life. Wisdom, as a spiritual gift, is the ability to see things from a divine perspective, to see the big picture beyond all of the earthy ephemera. Or to put it another way, wisdom is what exists when you shove aside the veil of dollars and cents that colors our perspective in this world.

My dear friend Merriam-Webster defines it in a slightly different way. He says, wisdom is “the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand,” or “knowledge of what is proper or reasonable, good sense or judgement.” That definition will enable some folks to say that dollars and cents are a big part of what makes the world turn and must be considered in every decision.

So, it’s clear that there’s not even any real agreement, from an objective point of view, about what I yearned for as a child and never stopped seeking. From a subjective point of view, though, I will say that I lean toward the initial definition.

This is important! I am not splitting hairs here because I enjoy mental gymnastics. I am establishing the very foundation of my point: perspectives differ. That is part of the human experience, part of life’s richness, part of the savory stew of existence that God created. He wanted this diversity so that we can learn from one another, and grow by reconciling our differences in order to find healthy ways to exist together.

We’ve never quite mastered that knack, though. The bible is full of death and mayhem, and history is full of death and mayhem, and our times are filled with death and mayhem. Some days I do no more than read headlines because I simply cannot bear to know the details. “I cannot do anything about this, Lord,” I will pray. “Please inspire those who can do something to step up and make a difference, and forgive me for having such a small heart.” At other times, I see something which calls me to action, and I devour the details as though I were starving and needed to know everything in order to live.

More and more I become aware that the gift of wisdom I yearned for as a child and sought as an adult has become a necessary skill. When I was a child, the line between a credible news source and an unreliable news source was a hard line and easy to discern. Daily newspaper – credible; National Inquirer – unreliable. We could trust what we saw on the news; we may not have liked what we saw, but we could trust it was reliable. Similarly, news magazines might have a liberal slant or a conservative slant, but both reported essentially the same facts — interpreted differently, but with the same foundational information.

The internet has changed this. Anyone can post anything, whether it’s true or not, and that psuedo-information can go viral, with thousands — even millions — believing what was bogus in the first place. During the election, I saw a post on Facebook that said the Pope endorsed Donald Trump — total fabrication. In fact, when asked about some of Trump’s rallying points during the election, Pope Francis indicated those positions did not reflect a Christian attitude. That is clearly not an endorsement.

This past week, I posted an article from a credible news source with a quote from the article and a statement about why I felt it was an important article. A friend responded in a manner that baffled me. I had never thought of this person as an extremist, but the comments were so far right, it was past alt-right. In my responses, I kept trying to clarify my position, because I was sure some kind of miscommunication was occurring. Finally, it dawned on me that either (a) he had not read the article I posted in the first place, or (b) he had read an article from a fake news source about the same issue which was intended to elicit the kind of response he demonstrated.

This saddened me more than I can express in words. My heart ached.

When two women came to King Solomon with one living child which both wanted, Solomon could test the veracity of their statements. Both claimed the child was hers; he tested those claims. Today, our news sources are like those two women. Both credible news sources and fake news sources are engaged in telling the American people the other is attempting to mislead them. Most people are simply choosing to believe what reinforces their existing biases. They are like slave owners before the Civil War, reinforcing one another’s belief that African Americans were animals not people. They are like industrialists before child labor laws were passed, reinforcing one another’s belief that children needed to work rather than to be educated.

The similes could go on and on, and they would not be flattering. We cannot afford to simply believe something because it reinforces what we want to think. We must challenge ourselves to be smarter than that, to be wiser than that. We must challenge ourselves to pursue the truth — even if it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient. We must, in other words, sober up. Right now, we’re like a bunch of drunk drivers — which is a disaster waiting to happen.

We have the ability to stop that disaster from happening, but will we use it?

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What is Real?

Juliet thought a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Today, if she made that comment, a controversy would be unleashed. First of all, there would be a problem with the generalization; while there is a scent recognizable as “rose,” not all roses actually smell the same. Then there would be folks who have a problem with the whole identity aspect of the statement; names do matter — there is a huge difference between calling someone morbidly obese and saying the person has generous proportions; change a name and you change how something or someone is perceived.

Few, if any, would even remember that Juliet was actually saying, “I love a boy who will be rejected simply because he was born into the wrong family.” No one involved in the controversy unleashed by a young girl’s longing to get past cultural barriers will consider how she is affected or how the boy is affected. They will become entrenched in their positions and set out to annihilate one another.

Oh! Right! That is the dynamic that Shakespeare was exploring in one of his most popular tragedies, “Romeo and Juliet,” the way our allegiance to ideas can destroy what we love. When it happens in our personal lives, it can lead to remorse and personal transformation, but what happens when it plays itself out on a larger stage? Anytime groups of people are involved in this destructive pattern, the conflicts have a tendency to escalate.

I have been ranting for years about the destructive polarization we find in our nation today. I have been angry at every leader who has contributed — including the Catholic bishops who have misled the faithful in their dioceses, telling them to vote based on one issue only, which is not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. [I believe they are going to be held accountable before God. After all, Jesus did say, “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).]

In recent months, it’s become glaringly apparent that information and misinformation have been used to reinforce entrenched allegiances and exacerbate the polarization. The GOP has denied the economic recovery to such an extent that 60% of folks who voted for Trump didn’t even know that economic indicators demonstrate we currently have a strong economy. I suppose that was a face-saving measure. After all, it would have been pretty humiliating to say, “Despite everything we did to thwart him, the current president’s administration has succeeded in cleaning up the mess made by the last Republican in office.”

Who benefits from this practice of denying facts? From denying the truth?

No one benefits. It’s that simple. No one benefits when important decisions are made as a result of misinformation. We create a self-perpetuating cycle of escalating violence until people are worn out by the pain and suffering, until there is nothing left from what anger has wrought except despair.

The Internet has a lot to do with the dissemination of misinformation. Folks can post anything they want, and fabrications can go viral, misinforming thousands — or perhaps millions — of people. However, distrust of the mainstream media also contributes. People are skeptical — due in part to the fact that it’s easy to label reporting which doesn’t reinforce our opinions as biased, but also due to the fact that bias does exist. What most people don’t realize is this: that bias is a reflection of our humanity, not as a result of a desire to mislead.

This blog reflects that bias. I am not Republican, and I have been appalled by some of the decisions made by elected officials who are Republican. Because some of these decisions have violated my core value system, I am hyper-alert to other transgressions. I cannot tell you nearly as much about what Democratic candidates said during the last interminable presidential campaign as I can tell you about the outrageous comments made by the president-elect. He offended me, and I watched him closely to make sure I had complete information regarding his unsuitability for the office he will — gag — hold.

That’s human nature. Because every reporter is human, every reporter is going to bring to every story values and biases that have nothing whatsoever to do with misleading or misinforming anyone. The filter through which they perceive information shapes the story they write. But, the same is true for all of us; unfortunately, few of us have the capacity to recognize this. Few of us can step back and take a good hard look at the way we process information.

So, what I am trying to say is this: Yes, the news we receive will be biased, and we’re going to hear things and read things we won’t like because we’re also biased. But, we have keep making the effort to educate ourselves; we need to reject “news” sources which are actually disseminating propaganda (or at least recognize the nature of the information we receive), and we need to be diligent in pursing stories that interest us — preferably by checking several sources.

Once we have educated ourselves, we need to make sure we are not using information to arm ourselves against others. We need to explore ways we can use the information we acquire to build bridges. For example, I will never be persuaded that cutting taxes for the wealthy or paying CEOs exorbitant salaries is beneficial to the common good — and that’s my criteria for good policy, something that works for the common good. However, I agree entirely that government has become so unwieldy it’s a joke. So, now, I have found common ground with my Republican friends — and I do have them, surprisingly — so how can we build on that point of agreement?

The more we work to educate ourselves and the more we work to build bridges, the more likely it is that we will avoid destroying what we love. And that, my friends, is real.