Monthly Archives: March 2013

Asking for the Impossible

I wrote the previous post while sitting in a coffee shop. At one point, a cheerful, pretty young mother came in, wheeling a stroller. In the stroller was a girl who looked to be about 2 years old.

Here’s what happened next. Keep in mind that this is in a coffee house.

Slinky BraceletsMom: What would you like, honey?

Girl: A bracelet.

Mom: A bracelet?

Girl: Yeah.

Mom [to male barista]: Do you have a bracelet?

Barista: Yes, I do! [And he produces from behind the counter a plastic slinky bracelet.]

Mom: Would you like the bracelet, honey?

Girl: No.

The Pursuit of Happiness

One of my daughters told me something yesterday that I thought was really profound. She said that in America, we feel that we have a right to be happy. After all, our Declaration of Independence states that we have an “unalienable right” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But what we forget, said my daughter, is the pursuit part. We’re so enamored of our rights that when we’re not happy, we think the universe/society/God has failed to come through as it should. We mope and complain.

Instead, if we’re not happy, then we should pursue happiness. That’s what we have a right to: the pursuit.

This came up for my daughter as she was having a conversation with a young man who had quit school and was stuck in a boring, dead-end job. He was clearly not happy. She asked him what would make him happy. He said he had no idea. “What are you passionate about?” asked my daughter. “I have no freakin’ idea,” he said again.

She made the obvious but important observation that if he didn’t at least try some new things, his life in his late 20’s would be just as dull as it is now, in his early 20’s.

Her encouragement to the young man is good advice for all of us. If you’re not happy, then pursue happiness. If you don’t know where to find it, trying things at random will give you a better chance than doing nothing.

I have another daughter who was quite depressed in her early adolescence. “Every day is worse than the last,” she told me. Out of the blue, a neighbor gave her a video of Korean pop music. (Talk about random!) Right away, all of my daughter’s circuits lit up. Suddenly, she had found her passion. She pursued it by finding a student-exchange program with Rotary International and then more or less crashed a meeting of our local Rotary chapter to ask if she could become an exchange student. She wrote to a Rotarian in South Korea to inquire about opportunities. She studied Korean on her own for a year and a half. She attended a Korean church 40 minutes away, and took Korean lessons there. She took Tae Kwondo lessons to absorb  even more of the culture. As I write this, she is an exchange student in South Korea, the first stage of pursuing her dream of becoming a performing artist there. She did this all on her own. (All I did was act as taxi driver!) I don’t know how her life will turn out, but I do know that she will continue to pursue her passions and happiness, no matter what it takes. That’s what I’m talking about!

If you’re not happy, try something different. If you have no idea what to try, random is better than nothing. Your best chance is probably something that serves others. But do something! Pursuing happiness is your right. Use it!


In response to Daylight at Live to Perceive:

Shutters covered a window,
Fastened as instructed,
Shedding rain down and out,
Storm after storm.

Inside, a young woman
Hoped there was more to the world
Than the mud she saw through the louvers
Every time it rained.

She unbolted the shutters
And re-installed them upside-down,
Louvers pitched toward true heaven,
Admitting both rain and clear.

When the world’s tears fell at night,
She let them pour into her room,
Even stretching her hands up to the window
And letting the water run cold down her arms.

She embraced it all,
Just so on clear nights she would see
Pisces swimming bright and true,
Leaping on the white river of stars.

The Hanging

September 12, 2009. Clay County, Kentucky — a place known for its blood feuds and distrust of strangers.

Bill Sparkman is found dead, hanging from a tree.

The man’s wrists and ankles were bound with gray duct tape. A red rag was stuffed into his mouth, secured with tape wrapped around his head. A U.S. Census Bureau identification card dangled from the tape, near his right ear. And scrawled across the man’s chest, in ink from a black felt-tip pen, were three giant letters: F E D.

The man was slumped forward, his feet touching the ground, a noose of white nylon rope around his neck. The rope had been tossed over the branch directly above him, wrapped around a nearby tree, and tied off on a third tree. He was wearing only socks.

What do you think? Who killed him?

Bill Sparkman

Bill Sparkman

The sensational story was reported around the world. It was natural to think that backward elements in Appalachia, ever suspicious of government interference, had taken down census worker Bill Sparkman because he was one of “the feds.”

That turned out not to be the case.

Sparkman had never married, yet had been a devoted Boy Scout leader and had spent nine years as a teaching assistant in the public schools. The pathologist on the case determined that Sparkman’s colon had been cleansed with an enema. Could his death have been tied in some way to homosexual activity?


His ne’er-do-well, adopted son, Josh, was the beneficiary of a $300,000 life insurance policy although Josh and Sparkman had a “strained” relationship. Josh and his crowd were thought capable of murder. Even Sparkman’s mother suspected Josh might have done his father in to get at the money.

Not so.

Sparkman’s other $300,000 policy listed Lowell Adams, his sometime assistant in census work, as beneficiary. Mr. Adams was interviewed by the police, but did not provide any important clues. At a second interview, this time with a polygraph, Mr. Adams changed his story. Why had he hidden information from the police?

He had a reason, but it was not that he had killed Bill Sparkman.

The case was cracked when forensic anthropologist Emily Craig was able to prove that the pen-strokes of the word FED had been drawn on Sparkman’s chest from bottom to top rather than top to bottom.

The plot is better and more heart-breaking than any detective show you’ve seen on TV and I won’t spoil the ending for you. You can read it for yourself in this account at

I will say this: The case provides one more reason for me to keep my New Year’s Resolution to avoid judging anyone’s motives. I will not think I know what’s in other people’s heads — not the people of Appalachia’s, not Bill Sparkman’s, not Josh Sparkman’s, not Lowell Adams’, and not yours.

Also, I will remember that any story reported under a deadline could be wildly wrong.

Moral Imagination

I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married.

That isn’t how I’ve always felt. As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way

So began Senator Rob Portman’s commentary yesterday in The Columbus Dispatch.

What was the “something that happened” that led to his change of mind? It wasn’t well-reasoned arguments from the other side; nor years of in-your-face tactics from such groups as ACT UP; nor (primarily) a re-examination of the Bible. Rather, it was the fact that his own son had some out as gay.

A beloved human face on the issue totally transformed it. That’s great, right?

Well, yes, in one way it is great, but there was a very incisive exchange about this on the Public Radio call-in show, On Point. The first caller said:

If we have to wait for every legislator of every party to have a personal experience with an issue … — [and] this will sound harsh but — have a loved one get raped; have them get AIDS; have them come out of the closet; get shot in a theater or school — then what is it about us as a human family that we cannot understand that just because it doesn’t happen to us, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to someone?

I mean, maybe Rob Portman should know someone who’s poor, or who doesn’t have a job, and maybe that would change him [as a conservative Republican]. (Time 6:20 in the audio at the top of this page.)

Tom Ashbrook (the host) summed it up:

Does it have to be personal before we can see the issue?

Guest Jack Beatty agreed:

What a comment on moral imagination!

This failure of our moral imagination – this inability to put a real face on moral decisions unless a face we know is thrust in front of us – has certainly been my own failure many times. It seems to be one of humans’ built-in cognitive biases. We weigh the opinions and stories of those we know and love much more heavily than the circumstances of strangers.

How can we do better?

One way is to spend time with people who are unlike us. One of my daughters happened to meet many lesbians at her college. Overt homosexuals hadn’t really been part of her world up to that point, but once she got to know some, she became much more sympathetic to their concerns.

Another is to imagine those we love in the situation in question. Are you against publicly funded healthcare? Then imagine your father out of a job, unable to afford insurance, and diagnosed with a break-the-bank illness like cancer. Your family can’t afford to pay out-of-pocket. Should society let him die?

What do you think? How can we strengthen our moral imagination and become more empathetic?