Friday, February 20, 2015

Truth in the Valley

“I have always been intrigued by people who have a great capacity to trust God … If my strength depends on my capacity to trust God, then I am not very strong!” Herbert O’Driscoll

I feel sorry for Brian Williams. Human memory is such a fragile thing, and our ability to look into the mind of another human being is so limited. I cannot know for certain what Williams remembers or misremembers or has fabricated, but knowing my own short-comings in that regard, I cannot bring myself to throw any stones.

I never read the Spider Man comics, but I remember in the movie (the one with Toby Maguire) Peter Parker’s uncle reminded his nephew that “With great power comes great responsibility” – and so there is an expectation that people in the news business would exercise greater responsibility in doing their fact-checking to ensure their stories are both reliably accurate and trustworthy. That is a reasonable expectation.

As human beings, I know we like to think our memories are pretty good, at least with regards to “important” matters. It may not matter what we had for breakfast this morning or yesterday, but surely we would remember an event like being “under fire” or what happened when we had that “big fight” – wouldn’t we?

But I’m not so sure. Our egos are pretty fragile, and when you add to that the point that “each of us is the hero in our own story” (I wish I could remember who said that – it isn’t original with me), then it makes sense that one might adjust his or her memory of events in a way that does himself the least harm – or shows herself in the best light.

The interesting thing is that much of this is done unconsciously or subconsciously. We often accuse people of lying, when in reality, they are not remembering the event, but their recollection of the event – which involves chemical and electrical processes within the brain itself.

Now, people DO lie. Of course they do. The child who insists they did not take the cookie as crumbs fall from their face is lying. The man who insists he did not rob the bank as the trail of bills falling from the garbage bag to the tree behind which he is hiding is lying. People do intentionally strive to deceive others for a variety of reasons, but I’m not talking here about our capacity to lie.

Rather, I am talking about the way we communicate with one another. We do not communicate through words, but through stories. As a wordsmith, I am particular about the words I use, but they are my words and how they help or hinder the reader are my responsibility. The words you use also help and/or hinder my ability to hear and understand the story you are telling me.

For instance, when a house is burglarized and a person says they were robbed, the hairs on the back of my head stand up and I am liable to throw a conniption because (as a former police office) I know there is a technical difference between being robbed and being burgled. Robbery involves taking something from a person by force or threat of force, whereas burglary is the breaking and entering of a building to steal something. One is a crime of violence against a person, the other a crime against property.

The point is, humans are story-tellers. That’s how we communicate. If our story is unclear, people may ask questions for clarification. As we clarify our stories, they change. We find different words, we rearrange the order in which we tell the tale, or we may replace pronouns with nouns and change the emphasis from one part of the story to another. We do some of these things to make it clearer, but we also do them in response to our audience.

To a humorist, laughter matters – that’s our chocolate. Reporters are supposed to be objective, however, and therein lies the rub. News outlets today are often shooting for market-share, and so stories are more often shaped and arranged to amaze and amuse than to report “just the facts”.

Sadly, that’s the world we live in; fortunately, there will always be those among us who can and will correct us, and that’s a truth we all share in this, our valley.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Treasures in the Valley

“The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” Benjamin E. Mays

Organization has never been my strong suit. For most of my life, January is a month where I annually promise that “this year will be different.”

I clean out my files and desk drawers, buy organizers and labels, and sort through assorted papers stacked from here to eternity, but by the time the Super Bowl rolls around, Chaos is once again crowned King.

King Clutter rules my life. I wish it were different, but it isn’t.

I see a gizmo being sold on television that takes your receipts and transfers all the information neatly and painlessly into your computer. Ah, the promise of a life that is both paperless and organized is very attractive – but will it deliver? I’ll never know, because I lost the name and number of the scanner; it’s around here somewhere.

Oh well, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Such is life. I am finally able to take a long hard look at my inner soul and recognize that this particular characteristic is highly unlikely to change. I can (and do) make efforts to improve along these lines, but I’ll never really be successful – and that’s OK.

My bureaucratic inadequacies will make for a delightful discovery two thousand years from now when some archeologist will find my stash of scrolls and detritus and puzzle over the meaning of life as it was expressed and experienced in the “old west” of early twenty-first century America.

My being a slob today may help some future slob keep his or her job centuries down the road. When it comes to dirt, archeologists dig it, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Knowing my limitations doesn’t stop me from trying to improve; it just helps me adjust the energies I put into the matter. Organizational experts tell us “files are not a storage system, but a retrieval system.” I know that. My brain accepts it to be true. But I have squirrel DNA. I take my precious treasures and bury them hither, thither, and yon, and then I devote the rest of my waking moments scratching my head and wondering where on earth I buried my nuts.

So, I know that about me. I am not proud of it, but I accept it. I don’t rest on my laurels (partly because I can’t find where I put those dog-gone laurels, to begin with), but I can improve.

As useless as it may feel each January to strive to get organized, it would be worse if I did nothing at all. At least last year’s files are in a carton that is clearly labeled (but the label is on the side of the box I shoved up against the wall … sigh), and this year’s records will be in a fresh new container that I will label sometime between now and next January (after I locate my magic marker).

What is it about human nature that moves us to organize everything?

I suspect it has to do with control. When things are where they’re supposed to be, we save time and energy retrieving them. I admire folks with peg-boards in their garages and shops with “shadow-marks” outlining where each tool is supposed to hang. I like having things out where I can see them. I don’t like things hidden away in drawers or boxes so they’re hard to find.

I wonder if God is well-organized. There are times I presume God has a list of who’s naughty and nice – a cosmic Santa, if you will. But my hope is that God has my permanent record locked up in a drawer for which the key has been lost. Better yet, I pray those records get shredded every January.

As I picture it, confetti falls from the divine shredder into a chute that pours it all down into the bowels of Perdition, where the devil and his minions toss it into the fires while muttering under their breath, “Filing is Hell!”

If true, that could prove to be good news to treasure for everyone here in this, our valley.