Bob McDonnell and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Moral complexity makes for great movies, but it doesn't mix well with politics.

I haven't spent much time over the past year thinking about Bob McDonnell's problem.  He wasn't my governor, he's not a member of my political party, and he and I are on different sides of a number of issues.  So when the news came out this week that McDonnell and his wife have been indicted on a number of charges related to receiving gifts and loans in exchange for political favors, I didn't bother to read the full article.

But now the Washington Post is running analysis of this story and I can't stop reading.  I am not nearly as interested in the stupid things that people do than I am in their explanations for their behavior.  I'm in the meaning-making business after all.  I am interested in the stories we tell ourselves and others to make sense of our actions.  

Robert McCartney asked in his column yesterday, "How did a smart guy like Bob McDonnell end up in this mess?" His response was less than satisfying:  "a toxic mix of personal money worries, an assertive wife, a taste for luxury, and a culture of coziness between politicians and rich supporters."  What's missing in this list?  Anything that suggests that McDonnell is really responsible for his actions.  It makes it sound like it was all an unfortunate mistake.  The "assertive wife" comment is particularly egregious.  It makes it sound like McDonnell was guilty only of trying to make his wife happy and to make everything seem like it was okay.  It sounds suspiciously like a story that McDonnell is telling himself right now.

But I think simple explanations tend to be more accurate.  Instead of attributing McDonnell's actions to a "toxic mix" of anything, let's just say that McDonnell did what he did because it benefitted him and he thought he could get away with it.  Everything else is a story told to justify bad behavior:  "I deserve this", "My office demands I have this", "This is how the game works", "This was forced on me by someone else."

McDonnell's actions may be particular to politicians, but his explanations aren't.  We all try to justify our bad behavior so that we can maintain our role as the hero of our own stories.  How can we check this tendency before we get into trouble?

  • Ask:  Would I tell other people the story I'm telling myself?  Would they believe me?  This is a version of one of the most effective morality tests I've ever learned:  Would I want this published on the front page of the Washington Post?  
  • Ask:  How long would it take me to explain this?  If it would take several paragraphs, chances are you are hiding something from yourself.  The right decision is most often easy to explain.  
  • If the only explanation for your behavior is, "It's complicated", back up.  Keep it simple.


Finding God--Alone

The Washington Post has a stunning feature today on one neighborhood's recovery from the earthquake in Haiti called "The Spirit of Survival" written by Manuel Roig-Franzia.  I haven't read anything like this in the newspaper for a while--a truly vivid portrait of human community and human suffering which never crossing the line to sensationalism.  The piece begins, "Earthly spasms could not undo the Village of God," so needless to say I read on.

Roig-Franzia captures some of the voices he hears in this Haitian tent camp in a former soccer field:  a "preacher lady" screams "There's nobody who can do anything for you if you're not a God-fearing person; only Jesus!"  A "lawyer" yelling on a street corner "If [international relief agencies] want to help, the aid has to be distributed!  If they can't bring the aid, we should tell them to go!"  And a "gangly teenage boy" raps along with a song on a stereo, "fight for what you believe/if you want this life to change/don't just sit and look around."

Those three speakers concisely summarize the range of options we have when we are in crisis:  call on God, call on others, and call on yourself.  I imagine that all three appeals are needed for Haiti to rebuild.  But in the end, I guess I'd have to side with the preacher-lady:  when everything falls down around us, the love of God gives us a foundation on which to rebuild.

Chris Beyer spoke at KC this past Sunday, and he ended with an image that has been on my mind ever since.  Chris was reflecting on two passages from the week's lectionary (Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36) which both describe a direct, unmediated experience of the divine which a group then tries to manage or control in some way.  He reflected on how often we put up barriars, "veils", in between ourselves and God, valuing a leader or a church or a practice or a call or even an identity more than we value God.  That's all well and good until we lose the leader or the church or the identity, etc., and suddenly realize that we don't have no sense of connection to God, no spirituality, no faith, without those things.

Chris ended by saying, "All my life I've had this recurring nightmare; I am trapped beneath tons of rubble, in pitch-blackness, unable to move any part of my body.... As we've just seen in Haiti, many people have suffered this precise horror.  I just pray that, if ever in that situation, I would not panic because God would be there with me, and that I wouldn't be too afraid to see Him."

I pray the same thing.  I put a lot of value on my call, my community, my family, my sense of purpose, my identity, etc.  But I pray that if I were to lose those things, I would have a connection with God that wasn't dependent on anything other than God's own love for me.  I trust that connection exists, not because of I have a particularly pure faith (I don't) but because that's who God is. 

The unfailing, freely-given love of God is, in the end, the only thing I know that can combat despair when other people and groups fail us and we have lost even our own sense of self.

Supreme Court Ruling on Global Warming

A few months ago I spoke at a KC Spiritual Education Evening about global warming. I talked a little about my recent experience as member of a group of scientists who'd written a brief in support of a lawsuit by several states petitioning the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants. Today the climate science community got some important news: the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the EPA, in turning the petition did not adequately consider the relevant science. Writing for the majority, justice Stevens said:
"In short, EPA has offered no reasoned explanation for its refusal to decide whether greenhouse gases cause or contribute to climate change. Its action was therefore ì€arbitrary, capricious, . . . or otherwise not in accordance with law."

If you'd like to read the decision, it's available at the Supreme Court website. Justices Roberts and Scalia wrote dissenting opinions, the vote was 5-4. While it would have been nice to get a few more votes, I think this is a victory for transparency in government. It will be very interesting to see how the EPA handles the ruling.