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Category: Reflections

Tearing down vs holding up

Tearing down vs holding up

I think this is one of the most powerful moments in David Suchet’s portrayals of Poirot. In the 2010 version of Murder on the Orient Express, the ending was not like the book nor the 2017 version. Give the ending a listen (spoiler alert of course). Given the currently poor state of cultural and political dialog, I think it’s worth a listen. Especially now that we have people calling for active dissolution of government systems that have (in some opinions) failed us:

Hercule Poirot: [furious] You people! With your kangaroo jury, your kangaroo justice! You had no right to take the law into your own hands!

Hildegarde Schmidt: M-m-monsieur Poirot, she was *five years old*!

Caroline Hubbard: We were good civilized people, and then evil got over the wall, and we looked to the law for justice, and the law let us down.

Hercule Poirot: No! No, you behave like this and we become just… savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high! If it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed!

Greta Ohlsson: There is a higher justice than the rule of law, monsieur!

Hercule Poirot: Then you let *God* administer it… not *you*!

Greta Ohlsson: And when he doesn’t? When he creates a Hell on Earth for those wronged? When priests who are supposed to act in his name forgive what must never be forgiven? Jesus said, “Let those without sin throw the first stone.”

Hercule Poirot: Oui!

Greta Ohlsson: Well, we were without sin, monsieur! *I* was without sin!

It’s interesting that people often ascribe all the wrongs in the world to God, when in reality, all the wrongs in this story were committed by people (Cassetti and then each of the 12 that committed murder) or the failure of our human institutions. God allows, and grants each of us, the freedom we are both blessed and cursed with – to choose good or evil. Should we blame God that some will invariably choose evil? Even unspeakable evil? Why do we blame God when our own justice systems fail? I always find it interesting that many quickly ascribe the wrongs in the world to God, yet ignore the alternative which is equally true if you do or don’t believe in God. Namely, that these evils then come primarily from us. From the evil we commit on each other.

Poirot takes a very bold stance that isn’t what we usually see in Hollywood movies – that we must not take the law into our own hands. Instead we must commit ourselves even more to fixing our justice systems when they fail us. Greta even recognizes that justice is a concept that isn’t just a block of laws, but that it’s something innate to us, something we all immediately recognize. This is true, we do seem to all be born with this sense. Like many incorrect arguments, right after that is where she stumbles. Firstly, she seems to think she is without sin. I’m no expert, but I bet every other person on that train that knew her could probably name a few of her failings. But worse, she claims that her own innate sense of higher justice then gives her the right to become judge, jury, and executioner when temporal laws fail us.

So what about that appeal Poirot makes to God? Is he telling us when our laws or human justice fail us, we are supposed to idly stand by like sheep and let evil run amok? Many modern minds would probably think this is what he’s saying – but it is exactly the opposite! Poirot isn’t telling them to ‘Just let God handle it’ – he’s telling them that there should be no crime that we in our human efforts that we cannot bring to justice. He’s setting the bar divinely high before he would believe in people taking the law into their own hands. Poirot was able to figure out this case of a group of murderers, despite its complexities. Therefore, the rule of law is able to bring justice to even this case. His point is that when we find flaws with our justice and law, we do not discard all the sacrifices and hard-fought battles that have brought us the infinitely better systems of justice we enjoy today. If we do not, then everything our society is based on will collapse and we’ll return to the barbarism we had before.


But secondly, Poirot has also recognized what has happened to those on this train. That the horrific death of one child has now led to each of them choosing murder. Just after this scene, we see one man threaten to add another – the murder of Poirot – so they can all escape. We see all their lives torn asunder by lack of forgiveness, grief, loss, and pain. He also recognizes each of the lies they’re telling themselves to justify what they’ve done. A short time later, he reveals this insight in a conversation Poirot has in private after the above one confrontation:

Mary Debenham: You said of the woman in Istanbul that she knew the rules of her culture and knew what breaking them would mean. So did Cassetti.

Hercule Poirot: [harshly] And so do you!

Mary Debenham: When you’ve been denied justice… you are incomplete. It feels that God has abandoned you in a stark place. I asked God… I think we all did… what we should do, and he said do what is right. And I thought if I did, it would make me complete again.

Hercule Poirot: [coldly] And are you?

Mary Debenham: [long pause, then] But I did what was right.

But we can sympathize with the brokenness of Mary. I think all of us have felt betrayed or let down by something we trusted in at some point. I even honestly believe she could have prayed and even been told to ‘do what is right’. The problem comes in this: we are often terrible at determining ‘what is right’. Even more so when we’re personally involved.

We know, as does Poirot, that the murder done ‘for justice’ really hasn’t helped. What she thought was ‘right’ has turned out to have made things even worse. The loss, pain, and tragedy is all still there, but now she has murder on her conscience too.

So what hope do we have in finding peace? What way are we to follow? In what can anyone put their trust in a world in which many feel lost or angry? This is where the Christian stands up and emphatically says, “To follow Christ!”. Early Christians were actually called ‘Followers of the Way’. When we put our trust in the way Jesus has taught us to live, and then truly put those teachings into action: forgiving when we are wronged, comfort the sorrowing, compassion for those crushed by life, providing education to the uneducated, give medical assistance to those in need, to fight for justice here and trust in final justice beyond instead of trying to administer it ourselves, to give temporal care to those in need, to visit the imprisoned, assist the crippled, house the homeless, warm the cold, welcome the widow, refuge, and child, and yes, even returning kindness when wronged – we are promised peace. Christ even gave forgiveness – as he hung nailed and dying – to the persons crucifying him.

This is what Christ taught, and the answer to “Do what is right”. In the western world, it’s also the foundation of all our laws and culture – for well over 1000 years. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the most equitable, fair, and amazing systems in which all people are recognized with inherent rights of their human being (their creation in the image of God).

It was never claimed this way would be easy or we can do it perfectly. It might cost us career paths, friends, fame, or force us to confront our worst enemies with compassion. It might even cost our lives – but to what else are each of us giving our lives? As for me, I would rather give my life in service to the teachings of Christ above like popular opinion and fads that come and go like leaves in the wind.

Highest Form of Disagreement

Highest Form of Disagreement

Democracy is a contact sport. Everyone gets bruises. Even the winners. And the kind of bickering we see today is not only unproductive.
It’s cowardly.
If you don’t have the guts to focus on ideas and stop tearing down individuals, you belong in the stands, not on the field. I want more leaders who are brave enough to focus on ideas and not ad hominem attacks. I want more leaders who are willing to say, “I hate everything she stands for, but I do not hate her. And neither should you.”
And I want more Americans who demand these kinds of debates for the sake of our democracy. Just ideas against ideas, let them fight it out, and if you lose, come back with better ideas.
Are millions of Americans ready to start fighting fair for the sake of our democracy? For the sake of solving common problems we all face?


Owners vs Stewards

Owners vs Stewards

When we take the radical view that all of creation is granted to us for a short time, that it is GIFTED to us, was created for us to live in, was handed to us by those that came before, and we will hand to our children and their children – then we start seeing ourselves as stewards, not owners. The difference seems subtle, but it is hugely counter-cultural – and hugely freeing.

This idea carries to all things, not just possessions like houses, money, jobs, the environment. It also means even our families. Instead of talking about ‘our/my children’, we instead see we are granted stewardship over our children until they become adults. This view requires we realize our children are unique people that do not ‘belong’ to us, but each is entrusted to us for a short time and has a unique path to God with gifts to give to others and creation. Our job as parents is to help them find that way. There is much sadness in our world because people believe children are somehow ‘theirs’ or expect them to fulfill parental desires and expectations – but not seen as amazing gifts granted to us to care for a short time.

This notion of stewardship is granted to us from the very moment of Adam and Eve – who were given ‘dominion’ over the rest of creation not to abuse it or use it however we wanted – but to be co-creators, co-stewards, with God. It is essential to any Christian view of our lives, the lives of others, our environment, the world, and the things we possess. Christ’ parables again and again talk of servants and stewards given temporary roles over another’s property, goods, and servants. If we can adopt this radical notion that everything that passes through our lives is something we are given stewardship over, not ownership, we can live not attached to the things we own, but with a gentle, freeing detachment.

Time Well Spent

Time Well Spent

What is the most dangerous problem in our world today? I argue it is not drugs, war, mass shootings, growing global divisions/unrest, global warming, or even a nuclear North Korea. What problem could possibly be bigger than those? How about the control of the minds of almost every person on earth.

Hyperbole? A growing group of top-tier developers, social media executives, technologists, military threat analysts, and researchers don’t think so. They are increasingly quitting or raising red flags of how dangerous the ground has become. Many have banded together, appearing on Ted, NPR, Wired, 60 Minutes, and many other forums – founding a movement called “Time Well Spent

So what are they saying:

I want you to imagine walking into a control room with a 100 people hunched over little dials that will control the thoughts and feelings of a billion people. This might sound like science fiction – but it actually exists today. I know because I was a design engineer at Google in one of those control rooms deciding how to ethically steer people’s thoughts. What we don’t talk about is how a handful of people at a handful of technology companies, through their choices, will steer what a billion people will think today.  – Tristan Harris

Still not convinced?

Several recent foreign elections, as well as our last presidential election, demonstrated the very probable reality that elections can now be swung, influenced, or even won by last-minute internet scandals and social media barrages. Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared before congress to answer for their complicity in Russian election hacking. How are we to run elections in the future if social media scandal or outrage can be created instantly and overnight by just a few people anywhere in the world while remaining anonymous?

How much faith do we put in systems in which as few as 2 developers, with any motivation or ethical goal, can run simple bots designed to exploit the algorithms of social media sites such as Reddit and ensure they have top visibility while silencing any dissension. Results which have been repeated and published over and over again.

Facebook publicly apologized for running experiments on users by filtering what they saw. Other Facebook employees admitted to regularly silencing political voices they did not agree with.

Others have written books about how they have engineered complete social media campaigns based on creating public outrage and then capitalizing on it. With teams as small as 5-10 people and budgets of only a few thousand dollars, they successfully generated campaigns that appeared in every national news outlet and made hundreds of thousands of dollars by posting and then counter-posting social media blitzes. All purely fabricated and designed to sell a product. They caution that the same techniques could be used for any purpose or end.

How about new agencies that are increasingly replacing staff with bots that scour social media and then generate the news stories you read? Or bots that can generate custom news stories based on what it knows about you? Requirements for new reporters have more to do with how to manipulate

There is growing and increasingly proven evidence that heavy use of social media sites and always connected phones is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues.

Video game loot boxes have been called gambling by some that are now seeking to regulate them.

Thinking deeper

All this isn’t a call to take down Facebook, disband Google, destroy smart phones, or riot in the streets. What is a call to do is to think deeper and awaken to our vulnerability to manipulation and the potentially destructive emotional and relational forces of our technology. Most of these systems were initially created without thought to how pervasive, and vulnerable to manipulation, they could become. Their dramatic success and pervasiveness has now revealed the danger of these vulnerabilities. Devices designed for convenience are now becoming dangerously absorbing.

TimeWellSpent points out that these vulnerabilities are being exploited because they’re combined with user interfaces that use techniques of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning to keep us constantly checking, re checking, and glued to them. If they are absorbing all our attention, then they are also absorbing our thinking.

While this wasn’t as big of an issue when connectivity was limited by physical access, but in an all-the-time, 100% connected world, we must pay attention to these forces.

Time Well Spent outlines some paths forward on their website:

  1. Design new products, devices, and core interfaces to protect our minds from constant distractions, minimize screen time, protect our time in relationships, and replace the App Store model of ‘apps’ with a marketplace of tools competing to benefit our lives and society.
  2. Enact legislation that enforces humane business models. Models that address the purposeful use of unhealthy positive reinforcement or operant conditioning to monopolize attention. Examples: gambling like loot/reward systems in games, etc.
  3. Bring attention and start public discussions that make consumers aware and able to recognize the difference between technology designed to extract the most attention from us and technology whose goals are aligned with our own.
  4. This is one in my wheel house: Educate and empower engineers and technologists to build products and business models that improve society while also become advocates against ones that ruin society. Talented employees are the greatest asset of technology companies – and the ones companies are most afraid to lose. They can become powerful advocates if they recognize their collective power.

While Time Well Spent spends its time on a few ideas relating to our social well-being, I would add a few more based on the idea that change comes from within:

  1. It is increasingly researched and documented that people who are heavy users of social media are much more prone to psychological problems such as depression, sadness, and unhealthy evaluation of their lives. Some good questions:
    • How many times in a day do you check social media (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc)? Be honest.
    • Can you go to the bathroom, wait in a coffee line, sit at a stop light, or any other waiting task without checking Facebook, Twitter, text messages, or playing a mobile phone game? How do you feel if you don’t – unsettled, irritable, anxious?
    • How much time are you spending each day checking social media? Be attentive to your usage and add it up. Is it more time than what you spend with a loved one, exercising, learning, or growing as a person?
  2. Can you have a whole meal with a loved one, spouse, family, or friend without checking your phone? How’s the quality of your relationship with that person compared with 5 years ago? Are you using digital distraction to avoid relationship growth/deepening?
  3. US News media sources are increasingly consolidating under a few giant media conglomerates. News stories and writers are increasingly only evaluated by the number of clicks they get – not to inform or educate.
    • Do you know the bias of your news outlet? EVERY news outlet has a bias and reputation – discover it by googling ‘news bias chart’ and start your research.
    • If you currently read a more ‘biased’ news source – can you go to a source at about the opposite side of the scale to read the arguments there or does it just cause you overwhelming emotions?
    • Do you double-check with news sources outside the US like BBC?
    • Do you have a healthy disbelief of the news you read until it has been fact checked by numerous sources and time – or are you a slave to immediate emotional ‘outrage’? Can you read a story that is designed to generate outrage and separate your emotional response from the facts? Can you avoid obvious click-bait articles with outrage inducing titles?
    • In the past, ‘Sex sells’ was the mantra. Today it is ‘Outrage sells’. How often do you read the news and become a mindless bot that re-tweets/re-posts/up votes/spreads your outrage – often without waiting to see if there is any truth, waiting for evidence to be vetted, or recognize that many of these articles are commentaries designed to get clicks – not invite informed, constructive solutions?
    • How often are you involved in constructive discussions that recognize the shared humanity in the other, is informed by peer-reviewed scientific data, and designed to create positive environments that encourage the generation of positive outcomes vs ones that are confrontational, destructive, or designed to humiliate/degrade/defeat those that don’t agree with you?
  4. Do you promote critical thinking skills?
    • Can you critique your own viewpoints and even the stances you agree with? Can you see both the good, and the wrong in them – or are you unable to see any failings in the things you believe – sure they are infallible?
    • Do you almost always/immediately believe what your political party, favorite star, favorite politician, musician, comedian, or news source tells you to be true? Can you question them or what they say?
    • Do you understand basic logical fallacies and argumentative techniques? Can you recognize when an article or person is using them on you? Can you call out people – even those aligned with your viewpoint – for using them and being intellectually lazy or even manipulative/deceptive?
    • Are you more interested in being right and shutting up dissenting voice or are you focused on your shared humanity with them, the fact we come from many different backgrounds that weren’t equally privileged, and that the argument/belief is a separate, changeable thing from the inherent value and beauty of the person?
    • Can you hear things designed to elicit outrage and not be swept up in the emotional appeal? Can you suspend belief long enough to get facts. When the facts support action, can you take actions that actively create a positive environment for change, or do you resort to violence, intimidation, posts designed to incite angry responses, or threats?
  5. How long can you go without checking the digital world?
    • Do you cultivate quiet times in your day? Are there times you let yourself be quiet, without video, music, or constantly checking texts/news/post streams?
    • When was the last time you let yourself get bored. Boredom is linked to creative and imaginative thinking.
    • If you are a person of faith, do you spend time in prayer or meditation every day? Even a fraction of the time you spend on social media?
    • Have you ever gone on a weekend/vacation in which you don’t turn on a single digital device or check email/threads/texts/etc?

My hope for the new year is that we all become better citizens by becoming better human beings. That starts within our hearts and with how we choose to spend our time. How do you want to spend your time this coming year?

Ill will

Ill will

People say that money is the root of all evil; but it’s not really true. In fact, I think it makes people look to the wrong place for a solution.

Money only becomes the tool to bad things when given motion by a human agent with a purpose and will. Money just exposes that corruption and weakness in the person, or reveals their goodness and charity.

Just like athletes that get regular drug screens, it is very prudent to put checks and balances on the flow of money. Parishes and businesses require regular audits. People entrusted with money should have procedures to protect what is entrusted to them via audits, multiple people present during counting, and similar systems help keep honest people honest and limit/expose damage when things go wrong. Rules, however, only go so far.

Formality, laws, and rules can make maleficence very difficult, but as every good bank heist movie shows, a person bent on taking something will eventually find a way. The real root of evil is the temptations in the human heart. By changing hearts, we can prevent far more problems than creating laws.

Money isn’t the root of all evil – the human heart corrupted is the root of all evil. When money becomes a tool of evil, then we can certainly take logistical and legal steps to protect us – but we more rightly can look to the human heart to make the true fix.

When is money actually the root of evil?

When is money actually the root of evil?

Great little article write-up here. Definitely worth a read.

Money is not evil. Good and evil actions come from the hearts of those that are making decisions about money. That is why sifting and knowing your motivations and reasons are critical to a well-trained soul.

Here’s a quick summary of when money becomes a tool of evil in your life:

  1. When it’s coupled with vainglory – When you are in love with yourself and you are elated with applause and flattery yet get angry with the slightest hint that someone is better than you, then you are in danger of the sweet but intoxicating venom of vainglory. When you use the money you make to inflate yourself with fine clothes/cars/houses in order to feel superior to others, then it is clear money is no longer just a gift for you to assist others around you.
  2. When fueled by envy – when envy is the catalyst for you to earn money, and motivates the way you spend money, then you are in for a trap – a trap of misery. Surely, it is not new to you if I say that there are rich men and women who died alone and miserable.
  3. When it’s the tool of vengeance – Many people believe they have overcome their anger – when in reality all they have done is repress it where it waits quietly for its moment to come back out. The desire to hurt a person because you feel it can satisfy you and can quench your anger – that is vengeance. Mind you, there are people who are pursuing the riches of this world just because they are angry at someone. They think that, by becoming rich themselves, they can use their money to hurt the object of their anger.
  4. If you lack compassion for people – We live in a world that applauds single-minded pursuit of your goals. But if what matters to you is for you is to reach your goals and dreams to be rich, and you have no qualms of who or how you step on people on your way, then you are in the danger zone. How will it be when you get what you want? Will you suddenly and miraculously start caring and helping others?
The Cross Bearer

The Cross Bearer

Joe Eszterhas was the screenwriter for the movies Basic Instinct, Flashdance, Showgirls. He also authored Hollywood Animal and American Rhapsody. Before that, he worked as a police reporter, racing the cops to robberies and shootings. He interviewed and wrote about mass murders and serial killers. Eszterhas knew a lot about darkness.  Then, on a hellishly hot day in 2001, desperately battling to survive throat cancer because of his addictions to alcohol and cigarettes, Joe Eszterhas found God. Or God found him.

His first prayer in over 40 years led him back to faith and the Catholic Church. Ironically, the priest he met was actually inspired to follow his path to the priesthood by the line from Flashdance: “to follow your dream”. Eszterhas wrote his autobiography in the book ‘The Cross Bearer’ which tells his story of how this author of The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood into the arms of a loving God.

He even gave a talk at Mt Angel Seminary about his journey. You can read it here in his book titled The Cross Bearer

Preverting Education to just be rationalization

Preverting Education to just be rationalization

Barrett nodded. “Education?”
“New York. London. Berlin. Paris. Vienna. No specific course of study. Logic, ethics, religion, philosophy.”
“Just enough with which to rationalize his actions, I imagine,”

– From the description of the depraved Emeric Belasco. Hell House by Richard Matheson

If your philosophy, religion, ethics, or logic come from popular authors or coffee table/internet level articles – do yourself a favor and stop. You’re far more likely to end up justifying your own beliefs instead of being challenged to find real truth. The kind you can base your life on.

Pro-tip: it doesn’t exist in any soundbite. Instead, it teaches you to think critically, to see the nuances of arguments, to realize NONE of them are completely correct, AND to see both sides. If your education isn’t doing this, then you’re just being spoon-fed what you want to hear. Your education should challenge you, make you angry, confirm and refute what you believe. Education is what allows you to experience that without having to lash out against others – and just deal with the ideas.

Hearing for the first time…

Hearing for the first time…

We are far greater than the limitations of our bodies. It’s moments like this that show our transcendent natures…

Christy Keane’s daughter Charly was born deaf. She’s still an infant, but recently got hearing aids. We’ve seen older children and adults get emotional when they hear sound for the first time, but Charly is so young, she doesn’t understand what’s happening or how to react. Her facial expressions are precious.

Compare these reactions of Charly and a 29 year old:

With this: