Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Cheating is the product of an abandoned mission

            On January 18, the New England Patriots routed the Indianapolis Colts in the 2015 AFC Championship Game.  Then the news broke that eleven of the twelve Patriots’ footballs were underinflated to ensure a better grip—a clear violation of NFL rules.  We still don’t know what exactly happened—and perhaps never will.  But whether cheating was in play in this case is incidental when measured against the magnitude of deceit in our country. 
            It doesn’t take long to generate a long list of dishonest athletes.  You know the names:  Lance Armstrong (cycling), Alex Rodriguez (baseball), Ben Johnson (track), Nancy Kerrigan (skating), to name a few.
            And we certainly know that cheating has no class boundaries.  There are the womanizers:  John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King.  There are the giant corporation tax cheaters:  News Corp, Boeing, Pfizer.  And, of course, there are high school and university student cheaters.  (In a November 1999 cover story, U.S. News and World Report noted that “Eighty percent of ‘high-achieving’ high school students admit to cheating, seventy-five percent of college students admitted cheating, and almost eighty-five percent of college students said cheating was necessary to get ahead.”)
            Whether the offense is deflating a football, stepping out on a wife, or pilfering the answer to a tough exam question from an erudite neighbor, cheating is nearly a national pastime. 
            Cheating is what happens when human needs—for survival, love, freedom, power, and fun—usurp one’s mission.  We all have needs, and most of our time is spent in figuring out ways to satisfy them.  We simply want to get enough food, love, freedom, power, and fun to enjoy life.  Sometimes we obsess about one need over all the others:  teenagers may obsess about freedom, despots certainly obsess about power, and thrill seekers obsess about fun.  Frequently a cocktail of needs are simultaneously activated.  For example, we may find that the deflated footballs had to do with the freedom to break the rules, the fun of winning, but mostly the power of money, influence, and recognition.
            Satisfying our human needs is natural and right, but not when it violates our mission.  Try this.  Sit quietly in a darkened room for ten minutes (it doesn’t take long) and ask yourself, “What is my personal mission?”  Then write like crazy for five minutes.  I predict you will compose something like this:
            “My personal mission is to be loving, honest, and transparent.  I live a life of absolute integrity.  I care deeply about others.  People can count on me to do the right thing.”
            Beautiful, isn’t it?  We can’t argue with it.  Indeed, that is the kind of person we would all like to be.  But is it possible to live such a virtuous life?
            It is for some.  When India was seeking its independence from the United Kingdom, Mahatma Gandhi made a two-hour presentation to England’s parliament—all without a single note.  At the end of his impassioned speech, all members of the chamber gave the Indian leader an effusive standing ovation and quickly encircled him to shake his hand.  Seeing that Gandhi was unreachable, one of the journalists approached the leader’s secretary.
            “Tell me, Sir,” the journalist asked, “how is it possible that Gandhi can speak for so long and with so much passion without the benefit of a single note?”
            “It is simple,” the secretary said.  “What Gandhi thinks is what he says, and what he says is what he does.  He is all one.  Gandhi tells us, ‘Man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in any other department.  Life is one indivisible whole.’  And that is why he does not need notes—all is congruent.”
            What a beautiful definition of integrity—one that could also stand as a personal mission.
            But consistently living a life of integrity is no easy task.  No one is perfect.  In fact, we are often slightly adrift, if only for a moment.  Imagine a cross-country pilot.  The aviator constantly checks the compass, sees that the plane is a few degrees off course, and makes an adjustment.  Those with character are continuously checking their compasses.  They ask the most important questions:  “Am I on course?  Am I headed toward my true north?  Am I in alignment with my mission?”  If they are a little off, they true up their line—and with any luck (and a good deal of integrity) they arrive safe and sound at their destination.
            I believe that the men and women that I mentioned at the opening of this column arrived—through some convoluted mental and spiritual gymnastics—to separate their human needs from their missions.  They allowed their eyes to wander from their compasses for too long.  Marriage vows were broken.  Contracts were severed.  And, as we may discover, eleven footballs were deflated because someone’s personal mission—if one was ever internalized—was shutdown and shutout.
            Now, before anyone accuses me of sanctimonious piety, let me quickly say that I am no Gandhi—I am too often seduced by my own needs—but I am capable of self-examination.  I can sit alone in a darkened room and ask myself, “What is my mission?  And given my mission, what is the right thing to do in this situation?”  When I abide by the voice of wisdom that resonates in my head, I discover that I am invariably a better man—at least for that brief moment in time when my hands are steady on the yoke of my life’s journey.
            Do I live a life of integrity?  Let’s just say that I make a lot of scrambling trips to that darkened room and leave it at that.

Allen Johnson is a doctor of psychology, community advocate, keynote speaker, and jazz musician. He is the author of a new novel, The Awakening, and will be a featured speaker at the Mid-Columbia LitFest on March 10.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Believing You’re “Special” Is Not a Predictor of Success

WARNING:  This essay is not about your children or grandchildren.  (I’m sure they are all adorable with their rosy cheeks and perfect manners.)  This is about someone else’s children—youngsters who belong to your neighbor or your congressional representative or the toothless bag lady on First Street.  So should you read this through and find yourself ready to reshuffle my teeth, take a deep breath and say to yourself, “This is not about my children.”

            Our children reside in a hallowed domain that is protected from scrutiny by outsiders, regardless of how judiciously our concerns are framed, so to quote Betty Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
            Several years ago I taught a full load of communication courses at Washington State University, Tri-Cities.  At Christmas my wife and I decided to invite fifty of my students to our home for a holiday celebration.  We decorated the house, baked the cookies, made the punch, and carefully tailored the entertainment for the evening. 
            When the big day arrived, I was giddy with excitement.  “This is going to be fun,” I chirped. 
            We pressed our pants, donned our Christmas sweaters, and waited with childlike anticipation.  And waited…and waited.  WE GAVE A PARTY AND NOBODY CAME.  Not a soul.  Nor was there a single regret spoken, telephoned, or emailed.  We turned off the lights, sat in the dark, and breathed a long, sorrowful sigh.   How much did it hurt?  You remember the pain of being turned down for a date in high school?  Multiply that by fifty.
            After the forsaken Christmas party, I started to notice evidence of a curious cultural change.  There was the teenage girl whose telephone answering machine bleated, “Leave your message.  Maybe I’ll call you back, but only if it’s important to me.”  Then there was the youngster who posted on Facebook, “Not everyone can be a princess; someone has to applaud when I walk by,” a sentiment that received two hundred “likes” in the first day.  Then I noticed the young professional athletes—heroes to our kids—who strutted like spring chickens and pounded their chests with every slam dunk or crushing tackle.
            What was going on?  I seemed to be witnessing a national epidemic of self-absorption.  Was it true?  Or was I just being hypersensitive? 
            To test my theory, I began examining all corners of our culture.  I saw how businesses and even governmental agencies were responding to this new ethic.  In 1995 Prudential changed their venerated slogan, “Get a Piece of the Rock,” to “Be Your Own Rock.”  Burger King followed one ego-centric slogan, “Have It Your Way,” with another:  “Be Your Way.”  Then in 2001 the United States Army adopted the bewildering motto “An Army of One.”  Huh?
            Now, with more votes being cast for contestants of American Idol than for the President of the United States, it is not surprising to see more businesses catering to young egos.  For example, take a look at a booming enterprise called “Celeb-4-a-Day.”  For only $3,000 you can experience a celebrity’s life for two action-packed, heart-pounding hours.  The package includes six personal paparazzi, one bodyguard, one publicist, one limousine, and your own magazine cover.
            Then I examined the research.  In 2008 the Journal of Personality published a twenty-seven-year study that reviewed the rise in narcissism for over 16,000 college students.  Their findings were dramatic:  Within two decades, self-reported scores on narcissism rose by 30 percent. To give you some perspective, narcissism in our country is rising at the same alarming rate as obesity.
            In 2003 the Journal of Personality Assessment looked at over 1,200 responses on a respected personality inventory (MMPI) over a four-decade period.  In 1950 only 12 percent of the teenage respondents agreed with the statement “I am an important person.”  By 1989 an astounding 80 percent agreed with the assertion.
            Some might argue, “Come on, Allen, what’s wrong with that?  Our young people should think they are important.” 
            The problem is that the pendulum has swung so far that “feeling important” has evolved into self-absorption, narcissism, entitlement, and, particularly troubling, low empathy.  For example, in a longitudinal study with nearly 14,000 college students, scores on empathy spiraled downward by 48 percent from 1980 to 2010.
            As a darker example, consider the words of Eric Harris, one of the eighteen-year-old shooters in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre:  “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?”  Empathy:  Zero.  Narcissism:  Off the chart.
            What is the source of this spike in narcissism and free fall in empathy?  In the 1960’s and 70’s educators and pop psychologists preached that a child’s fragile self-esteem needed to be continually exalted.  Parents were counseled to teach their children that they were “special” and that they could do “whatever they wanted.”  Because children were then (as they are now), our most treasured resources, we embraced that doctrine like the frenetic fans of reality TV.  Meanwhile, our children took the message to heart—one four-year-old girl in a frilly blue-satin dress telling me, “I can do whatever I want, because I’m a princess.”        
            Self-esteem—liking oneself—is healthy.  Narcissism—feeling that one is better and more deserving than others—is not.  For example, out of the fear of bruising a child’s ego, we have redefined the meaning of excellence.  According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, only 18 percent of American high school students earned an “A” average in 1968; by 2004 that percentage had skyrocketed to 48 percent.  Meanwhile, SAT scores steadily decreased—creating an academic environment where even the undisciplined are above average.
            Finally, cross-cultural studies offer a good deal of insight into the downside of overvaluing the specialness of children.  For example, Asians score significantly lower than Americans on self-report instruments measuring narcissism.  But how do Asians and Americans respond to academic challenges?  Interestingly, Asians buckle down until they get it right, while Americans tend to give up and select a task that is not so demanding.  Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me, put it this way:  “True self-confidence comes from honing your talents, not from being told you’re great just because you exist.”
            So here is my point (fawning mothers and fathers may want to look away at this point).  Telling your children you love them is healthy; it encourages a natural sense of self-esteem.  Telling your children they are better than others is unhealthy; it imbues your youngsters with narcissism.  Try saying this:  “Little darling, you are indeed special, but no more or no less special than any other person on earth.  If you are going to make a difference in the world—or just a difference among the people you love—there is only one thing that will make that happen:  Self-discipline.  Now get on with it.”

Dr. Allen Johnson is a columnist for the Tri-City Herald and the author of the novel, The Awakening.  His column, “Mindfulness,” appears on the first Sunday of every month.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

History Sheds Light on the Massacre in Paris

           In 1992 Charles Van Doren authored a book that was as captivating as it was daunting in its scope:  A History of Knowledge.  I believe his work sheds light on the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris on January 7, 2015. 
            Van Doren affirmed that after the fall of Rome (476 A.D.), the men and women of Europe turned over their individual moral responsibilities to the pope and his priests for the next thousand years.  The parishioners’ moral decisions were directed not by their own intuitive sense, but by the sacred word of the church. 
            All that changed on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the front door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Paramount among those theses was the assertion that man’s salvation was not granted by the intercession of priests, but by one’s individual faith.  As you can imagine, such outrageous temerity was not celebrated by the Catholic Church; Luther was summarily accused of heresy and excommunicated by the pope.
            There were many philosophers and artists who introduced the Renaissance to Europe—Giovanni Boccaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare—but perhaps Martin Luther was the most influential of them all.  With Luther’s reformation (along with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the publication of the bible) the citizens of Europe placed their salvation in their own hands.  They turned their backs on theocracy, the rule of God, and replaced it with a secular state based on a foundation of self-reliance, which—with a few exceptions—is the philosophy western nations adopt to this today.
            The greatest exception to secular governance has been witnessed in the Moslem world.   Consider Iran.  In 1979 the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  Khomeini dominated the new government until his death in 1989.  His rule was a theocracy and his word was the word of God.
            A religious despot wields enormous power, especially if the citizens have embraced the leader as their spiritual guide.  The war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) was a suicidal tragedy that resulted—by some estimates—in the death of over a million soldiers and civilians.  The ayatollah declared that Iranian casualties, many of them teenagers, died for God and would be received in paradise—and his followers believed it.
            There have been other theocratic despots.  Ironically, Martin Luther himself taught that non-believers could be killed—a conviction that kindled a bloodbath of religious wars and (a measure of the Catholic counter-reformation) inquisitions for 200 years.  As recently as 1978 we saw another venerate church leader, Jim Jones, convince 900 of his followers to commit suicide in Jamestown, Guyana.
            And today the modern world is shrouded by a pall of jihadists who are ready to slay non-believers in the name of God.  It is no wonder that western democratic nations are often their targets:  Democracy is, after all, the anathema to theocracy.
            Of course, the history of the world has not been limited to religious despots.  Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini were all atheists.  However, although their reigns of terror were grotesquely horrific, their legacies were relatively short-lived—the death of each ruler signaling the end of his order.  In contrast, theocracies—leveraged as God’s sacred authority—seem to have a life of their own, the autocratic leadership being passed from one true believer to the next. 
            With this dark history in mind, I, like many modern thinkers, have become an implacable advocate of the underlying precept of the Renaissance:  To be self-reliant and take responsibility for our own salvation.  As soon as we hand over our autonomy to the whims of clerical despots or theocracies—at any level, from an individual to a church to a nation—we are inviting a single flawed human being to control our destiny.  And that proposition is paralyzing to free will and, consequently, dangerous as hell.
            When the terrorists stormed out of the Charlie Hebdo office they shouted, “We avenged the prophet Muhammad.”  They could just as well have bellowed, “We take no moral responsibility for our actions.  Morality is the domain of the prophet.”