The Power of Guilt

The Obama administration is wrestling with whether or not to get minimally involved in Syria, meaning there will be limited military strikes,  letting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad know that the United States does not approve of his apparently having used sarin gas against his own people.

Fourteen hundred people were killed.

While it is annoying and frustrating that the United States is so often running to the aid of other countries, sometimes, it seems, with a hidden nationalistic and imperialistic agenda, perhaps our nation in this instance is acting out of a sense of guilt. We did nothing during the Rwandan genocide (, a fact which apparently still haunts former President Bill Clinton, and we did nothing to help the Jews who were slaughtered during the Holocaust. Not only did we, but other nations were silent as well. As a result, way too many people died. We as a nation bear a burden of guilt for our non-action.

President Obama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, said that he was elected to end wars, and indeed, much of his time and energy has been spent ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Even he, however, as much as he seems not to believe that war is the answer to all issues, seems to be  haunted some by guilt.”When people say that it is a terrible stain on all of us that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in Rwanda, well imagine if Rwanda was going on right now and we asked: ‘Should we intervene in Rwanda?'” the president said. “I think it’s fair to say that it probably wouldn’t poll real well.”  (

It is frustrating that the conflict in the Middle East just will not end. It is equally as frustrating that “we the people” really do not know all of what is behind decisions to go to war; we were not privy to that information in the past and we are not privy to it now.  But there is something to be said for being a superpower and turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the suffering of others.

Some would argue that the nation turns that same blind eye and deaf ear to the suffering of its own citizens.  Ironically, our nation seems to feel no guilt for the way too many of its own people live.  In spite of the superpower image, far too many people here live in poverty, some in that predicament even though they work. They do not make a living wage, but there’s no outcry and no guilt felt about that. Likewise, there are far too many people in this country suffering and dying from treatable diseases, but there is no guilt. In fact, there is a fight against working to get health care for all Americans.

But guilt (and, probably, a hidden agenda) seems to be a driving factor in the debates over whether or not to get involved in Syria. Should Congress vote President Obama’s resolution down that would make the way for our intervening in Syria, and al-Assad continues his attacks on his own people, the guilt will grow exponentially. We are trying to make up for ignoring Rwanda and Hitler…

Here’s an observation, though. Guilt doesn’t work. Guilt only makes individuals and nations act impulsively, doing things they later regret. And, it too often turns out, the dissemination of an action based on guilt is wasted energy, because the situation that produced the guilt doesn’t go away.

It would seem that instead of jeopardizing the lives of even more Syrians, and, of course, Americans, that there is a diplomatic answer to the problem and presence of al-Assad. A boycott or some such participated in by all of the members of the United Nations, for example, might get his attention.  We would be doing something, not ignoring the suffering of the Syrian people, and therefore would still be in position to assuage our guilt. A military attack, I am afraid, is only going to stoke the fire of irrationality that al-Assad has already shown. He wants that kind of fight, and guilt is pushing us to play his game.

It doesn’t seem wise.

A candid observation …



Out of Tragedy, New Life

Jason Williams, the player, died.”

He was talking about Jay Williams, who played at Duke and went on to join the Chicago Bulls

Mike Krzyzewski, who coached Williams while he was a Duke, made the comment on a recent episode of Real Sports with  Bryant Gumbel.

He was referring to the tragic story of Jason Williams, who was a star college athlete and went on to join the N.B.A. with nothing but promise and prosperity ahead of him. Several years ago, he had just gotten back home from mentoring a group of college kids wanting to or already playing basketball. He was on top of the world and on top of his game. He had inherited the locker of Michael Jordan. He had gotten to Emerald City, so to speak, and had found himself, or perhaps affirmed the “self” he knew.

Then it all came apart. When he got back home from mentoring those students, he decided to take a ride on his motorcycle. To say that the decision to do that was one he will probably regret until the day he dies is an understatement , because on that evening, something went terribly wrong as he rode his motorcycle. He ended up in a horrific crash which resulted in his left leg being injured almost to the point of no return. While doctors worried about whether or not they could save his leg, young Williams, who was only 21 at the time, worried about whether or not he’d ever play professional basketball again.

His leg made it; his career didn’t. He retired from the N.B.A. at the age of 21, and began to be known by some as “the boy who threw it all away.”

Jason Williams, or “Jay” Williams, as he was called, the player …died …although he survived the crash. He was a dead man walking, going through the motions for a long time after the life-saving surgeries he underwent saved that leg. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski was right.  He was a dead man walking at the tender age of 21.

To say that he sunk into depression is an understatement, more probably made worse because it seemed that many blamed him for his own predicament. He shouldn’t have gotten on that stupid motorcycle; even his N.B.A. contract forbade it. Those who ran the business of basketball knew the dangers that could snatch star players off the court and out of contention. These were young men signing to play ball; they knew about money and fame, because we in America are surrounded by the quest for both. But as youngsters, they didn’t know Life, and how Life isn’t fair. Young folks are not too keen about listening to older folks, so the “older folks” of the N.B.A., those who make their livings by knowing how to make and keep profits, have to step in and do what they need to do to protect their interests. They know that the lure of excitement, for young folks, is sometimes hard to fight.

So it was with Jay Williams. For a moment of pleasure, he threw the life he loved …away.

Williams was depressed for years, to the point of being suicidal.

And then it began to dawn on him that life hadn’t ended, just life as he had known it. There were parts of himself he knew nothing about. He hadn’t died and so it occurred to him that he might as well begin to live again. Today, at age 31, he is doing that.

The job for us, when we goof up, is to keep on going, to reinvent ourselves. Sometimes, goofing up is the best gift we can give ourselves. No, it isn’t fun to look past goofs in the face and have to “own” that we were so …human…but the fact is that humans make mistakes, and sometimes, really bad ones. When that happens, we want to curl up and die, or settle down into saucers of despair and self pity …and worse.

That’s what Jay Williams had done.

But when we life Life a chance to be …what Life is …an opportunity to go in so many directions, we are pleasantly surprised to find out that, inside of us all, there is more than we ever imagined. Through the reinvention of ourselves, we grow. That’s what Life wants, ultimately.

Ask Jay Williams. Ask President Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Anthony Weiner, for goodness’ sake.

Life “ain’t been no crystal stair,” as Langston Hughes, for any of us. It was never intended to be.

A candid observation …



Resurrection, Practically

The resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the center, the glue, so to speak, that holds Christianity together. After Jesus preached love and forgiveness and mercy…while at the same time preaching that God desired that there be social justice for “the least of these,” he was attacked by the government and by church leaders, both of who felt threatened by his growing influence and power. In the Gospel of John, crowds following Jesus grow even more after he raised Lazarus from the dead…and they were on fire, enthusiastic, “spreading the word,” as the Gospel notes. Because of his “word-of-mouth ministry, people began to spread the word, or continued to spread the word. And the Pharisees, according to John’s gospel (and no doubt, the Roman government!) got angry and became even more insecure than they had been. The Pharisees, noting Jesus’ growing ministry, said, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him?” (John 12:17-19)

The “this” they were talking about was their plans to get rid of Jesus, by any means necessary. The chief priests made plans to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus as well, John’s gospel reads, because they were threatened by Jesus’ growing power. Nothing they said or did was enough to squash Jesus presence and power, nor was it enough to intimidate the people into not following him.

Before “the resurrection,” it seems, there was “a resurrection,” this one being the human component of Jesus being able to wrest from the darts thrown at him to kill him and his ministry failing, ultimately, and Jesus being able to continue to do what his Father had sent him to do.

If there is anything that too many people seem to misunderstand, it is that resurrection is an ongoing process experienced by us all, and not a single event experienced by just one person. Any time we are able to escape the darts thrown at us, the curve balls that knock our lives off their foundations, and throw us into despair …we experience resurrection. We “share in Christ‘s birth, death and resurrection,” say writers in the books of Colossians and Romans.  We obviously cannot hang on the cross on which Jesus was nailed. So, how do we share in his birth, death and resurrection?

We do that by agreeing to become new on a daily basis. There are things in all our lives that crucify us, keeping us from realizing and using our full potential. Many of us live lives of  “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau said, not willing to venture out of our safe spaces and away from our “safe” and known behaviors. We are stuck. Every time, though, we garner enough courage to look at what’s making us suffer, and make a decision to crucify that, we begin the process of sharing in the suffering …and new life…that “the” resurrection offers to us.

In other words, we are not supposed to just look at Jesus’ experience of birth, death and resurrection; we are supposed to experience it. We are supposed to be willing to suffer for a while, but then be willing to let that suffering die and thus “resurrect” new people.

Let’s call it “practical” resurrection.

For some reason, the situation of former President Bill Clinton really impacted me. He was disgraced, surely, in the most heinous way. He was “crucified” for something he did, and was hung up to suffer in full view of the whole world. It was painful to watch. It seemed that Clinton had been “killed,” politically, when he was impeached. His faults and weaknesses were displayed and revealed for the whole world to see. He hung in full view.

But Clinton resurrected! He got up and moved on.  There will be some who will ever hate him for what he apparently did with Monica Lewinsky, for embarrassing the country and for violating his marriage vows, but, but Clinton resurrected! Those who put him down could not keep him down …and Clinton, who participated in his own demise, could not …or would not …keep himself “down,” either!  He made a bad mistake, and it seemed that his career as a politician was over. But that was not the case. Clinton endured his crucifixion, suffered the consequences…and then got up!

Suffering,including that which we bring upon ourselves, is not supposed to keep us down. If we believe in this resurrected Lord, then we are supposed to understand that we are given opportunity to “resurrect,” on a practical level, daily. Suffering, earned or unearned, has a purpose – and that is to strengthen us. We are not supposed to live suffering-free lives. The issue is not whether or not we should suffer, but, rather, IF we will be able to get up and move on, in other words, to practice resurrection.

One can only wonder what this world would be like if more of us understood that suffering and death are both a part of life. Parts of us, those parts which hold onto thoughts and memories which keep us “dead” inside and keep us from God and God from us – are supposed to die. We are supposed to “lose” our lives so that we can live our lives.

Jesus suffered unjustly, but still, he resurrected. Not even undeserved suffering has the power to keep us down unless we let it.

A candid observation. Happy Easter, everyone!

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