Anti-Social Behavior

I suppose we all have a relationship or two which falls into the “guilty pleasure” category. We know they aren’t a good influence. We rarely leave their presence feeling better about ourselves or the world in general. They make us a worse version of ourselves, and yet we just can’t bring ourselves to walk away. We make up all sorts of excuses for not cutting ties with them: we’ve known them for such a long time. Our mutual friends would feel awkward if we didn’t associate with them anymore. Or worse, our mutual friends might choose them over us. We are a good influence, and if we abandon them who will be left to offer a more enlightened perspective? We tell ourselves maybe they will change for the better.

And then one day, you’ve just had enough. A line is drawn that you just can’t cross. And you suddenly realize the futility of continuing in this relationship any longer. It’s like eating Rocky Road ice cream straight from the tub and praying it will magically turn into non-fat sugar-free frozen yogurt. Going no contact won’t be fun, but it’s time.

I have come to this place with social media, by which I am referring to Facebook and Instagram. I know these aren’t the only social media platforms out there, but these are the two with which I mostly frequently engage and with which I am officially breaking up. For a few years now, I have known FB and IG were a negative influence on my life. It wasn’t just the time wasted but the overall impact on my outlook that bothered me. When Jim left Taylor, I inadvertently walked away from posting for the most part. I’m not sure of all the reasons this happened, but I do know the co-mingling of friends and former friends in my network made me feel vulnerable online and I started just sharing pics here and there with friends through text. To minimize time spent online, I deleted my IG app and only accessed it via web browser. (If ever you doubted the intentionally manipulative design of social media, contrast the browser and app version of the experience. I can’t believe how much faster I exit IG and FB when I’m not plugged into the app.) I was more conscious or rather self-conscious about how much time I spent browsing. It also made me aware of the distraction it created in others, as I tried to engage with people whose eyes kept drifting to their phones. I have also started the absolutely radical behavior of leaving my phone in the car for church services, dinners out, and walks with the fam. Try this exercise and you will quickly realize what a lurking presence your and others phones are, even when turned upside down or in a pocket. Phones in this situation are like a rude, socially awkward third wheel, just waiting to interrupt and turn all eyes on them. Stop inviting them along! But I digress…

I noticed that this somewhat distanced relationship had me questioning why I would be involved with social media at all. I found myself asking questions like “Who is this post for? The person you are writing about or your “fanbase”? I was alarmed at the use of children as props for their parents’ “brand” and recognized that I have been guilty of doing the same. One of the kids asked me not to post pics of them from fun family events and would ask me “Why are you doing that?” which made me stand up and think “Yeah, why am I doing that?” The fact that I stopped posting for the most part during the dark season after Jim’s firing is a good indication that I was more interested in highlighting our happy seasons than transparently sharing real life with friends.

As my relationship with social media weakened, I could feel more clearly the impact on my state of mind when I did engage with it, generally walking away feeling fatter, uglier, less accomplished, and poorer while simultaneously feeling smug and judgmental. Not a good combo for the psyche.

Then this winter, Andrew’s school hosted a night with Dr. Leonard Sax, a prominent physician and psychologist, who opened my eyes even further to the negative impacts of social media on children. Not only was I participating in something harmful to myself, I was engaging with a dangerous organism which was being weaponized against the young and vulnerable. Jim and I spent time in prayer, repenting of having, in ignorance, exposed our kids to this malignant force and talking with our kids, most of whom are now young adults, about the impact this activity has had and is having on them.

With all of this, I still haven’t been able to walk away. That is until I heard of a Wall Street Journal article exposing the fact that Instagram “helps connect and promote a vast network of accounts openly devoted to the commission and purchase of underage-sex content…” What further motivation did I need to cut ties with IG? Maybe I was willing to ignore the cancerous impact it had on my productivity, my thoughts and even my children’s mental health. Sure IG is the gateway drug for pornography and a vast number of physical and mental disorders, but it’s so deliciously entertaining. But when confronted with this horrifying though hardly shocking article, how could I ignore that I was willingly partnering with a monster that doesn’t simply allow but promotes and profits from the sexual exploitation of children?

So I am breaking up with Instagram and Facebook. I will no longer post or monitor my accounts. I’m sure I will slip up every now and again or will peer over someone’s shoulder to watch a funny dog video or see who just got engaged. I’ll take it one day at a time and hopefully turn those days into months and years, but I am planning for an anti-social media life moving forward. An anti-social media life that is full of actual socializing and genuine and authentic engagement with friends.

As the saying goes, you do you. I don’t have any desire to judge others and their navigation through the complex “Metaverse” we find ourselves in. But I hope you will do so with your eyes wide open to the dangerous waters you are sailing through and prayerfully consider your course.


“O Trinity of love and power

Our brethren shield in danger’s hour

From rock and tempest, fire and foe

Protect them wheresoe’er they go.”

~William Whiting, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”

Passing Into History

Recently, I had the sad honor of attending a memorial service for a dear friend’s father who passed away quite unexpectedly. I listened as several people shared their memories of Fred, some funny, some touching, but all laced with the sorrow of his absence. It is a tragic irony of such events that the more beloved and accomplished the person is, the deeper the sense of loss and grief. It struck me that most of us are striving to live life in such a way as to make many people, whom we love, miserable when we are gone. The only thing worse than a funeral for someone for whom everyone is grieving is a funeral for someone for whom no one is mourning.

My friend’s dad was, fortunately, not such a person. There were many tears from the large crowd who gathered to comfort his family and celebrate his life. There was beautiful singing and a truth-filled homily declaring faith in life after death and the hope of resurrection. And then . . .  it was over. We wiped away our tears and hugged one last time. Some of us gathered for a meal and caught up on life. Then we drove home and did chores, walked our dogs and spent time with our families. Of course, the grieving process is not over and for his family and close friends. It never will be, at least this side of heaven. He will be missed at each family event, talked about among those who didn’t have the privilege of knowing him. But as those who had that privilege slip away, so will their memories. So it will be for each of us. One day in the future our lives, however long, will be reduced to an obituary and an afternoon service.

There are, of course, a select few whose lives take on historic relevance, but they are few and far between. Most of us will not be a world leader, a great inventor or the writer of a timeless classic. Even these figures aren’t really remembered as people but more by their accomplishments. Their deeds and works live on in our memories rather than in their personal impact on individual lives.

As I reflected on this truth, I realized that this is actually true for all of us. In the case of my friend’s dad, Fred, his skills will carry on every time his grandson tees up for a round of golf. His smile and kindness will echo through history in the smiles and kindness of each person whom he influenced for good. Each time his daughter stands in front of her class, his love of teaching will continue.

We each have the opportunity to live a historic life, one that ripples through time far after we are gone. Each day presents us with countless opportunities to reach beyond our eventual grave and live on through small acts of kindness or faithful service. There is no telling how you might echo through history, how loudly your life might resonate through time.

Of course, this requires one to think beyond oneself. After all, if I live a life that is primarily focused on myself, then that leaves very little behind after I am gone. While writing this post, the lyrics of the Beatles’ famous Eleanor Rigby kept playing through my mind. The namesake of this famous song which asks “all the lonely people, where do they all come from?” is buried in Liverpool’s St. Peter’s church cemetery. In the song, Eleanor is alone, touching the lives of no one, she is not mourned or missed at the end of her life. According to the gravestone of the real Eleanor, however, she was a beloved granddaughter and wife. One version of Eleanor has been enshrined as a monument to human isolation and loneliness. But the impact of the real Eleanor is quietly rippling through history in who knows how many ways. Let us strive to do the same.

The Waiting Room

The past two years and counting have brought quite a few personal challenges for the Spiegels as a collective and for each of us individually. Jim’s termination, the loss of friends and pets, various health issues, moving, and new jobs and schools make up just the highlight reel. One of these circumstances is enough to inspire stress and anxiety, but experiencing them simultaneously is enough to bring you to your knees. While all living through the these major life events, it was fascinating to see how the same circumstances have acted as “opportunities for growth” for all us but in sometimes entirely different ways. Change brings previously undiscovered weaknesses (and strengths) to the surface the same way that traveling to a foreign country can highlight aspects of your own culture and personality that you weren’t aware of before.

I learned a lot about myself through all these changes. But I was also given the chance to change myself, or rather choose to allow the Holy Spirit to bring about change. And the end of 2022 brought a scenario which allowed me to put some of these changes to the test.

As many of you know, Bailey and Andrew, our oldest and youngest sons, traveled to Bolivia in July–Bailey to teach art at Highlands International School in La Paz and Andrew to spend the semester as a student at that school. This wasn’t our first time sending off kids to international destinations and I was so happy for the both of them that while I missed them, I was thrilled to send them on their way. With Sam and Maggie off at school, it gave Jim and I a taste of empty-nesting which we quite enjoyed. Of course, waiting was made easier because we knew the boys would be returning at Christmas, Andrew for good and Bailey for a visit. Or so we thought. In a hotel in Miami, with dreams of being reunited with the kids still dancing in my head, I got a phone call. I had driven down a week before to drop Maggie and Sam off at the airport. They flew down for a visit with their brothers and then I was to drive them home for the holidays. The phone call was Bailey saying that Maggie and Sam had made their flight but that Bolivian officials were refusing to allow Andrew to leave the country. He was missing an important piece of documentation and to make matters worse, it was the Friday before Christmas. Offices would soon be closing for the weekend and not re-opening until later the next week. After a frantic day of driving from one office to the next, I was able to get the necessary papers on a flight to Bolivia but had to leave the airport two kids short. The sadness of not having them with us for Christmas was compounded by the fact that Andrew was set to start a new school a few days after New Year’s. I won’t bore you with the details of the roller coaster ride that was the next two weeks but ultimately Andrew arrived back in Indiana, after what he says were the best two weeks of his trip (!!), though sadly Bailey didn’t have enough time left of his break to come home. This situation taught me many things, one of which was never to make complicated travel plans around the holidays. But it also clarified my thinking regarding stress and anxiety.

I would like to issue the disclaimer that I understand that anxiety takes many forms and comes from many places. The type of anxiety I wish to address is the type we volunteer for rather than the type that creeps unbidden into our minds without our giving permission. I have several family members who struggle with anxiety and I know this struggle is real. But there is a garden variety anxiety over which we have much more control.

I discovered this distinction before Andrew was “held hostage” over Christmas. As I mentioned, Andrew was starting a new school upon his return. That’s because we were moving…again. This time to Michigan in order for Jim to take a position as a Templeton Fellow at Hillsdale College. The timing of this move was tricky and with several months of Jim’s contract in Bloomington left, we agonized over when to put our house on the market, not wanting to sell it out from under ourselves. Instead of finding ourselves homeless, we found ourselves with too many houses, the one we owned in Indiana and the one we wanted to own in Michigan. When describing our situation to friends and family, I would find myself feeling obligated to say “I am really anxious about selling the house” or “It’s so stressful that it isn’t selling.” One day I realized that neither of those things was true. I wasn’t anxious or stressed. So why did I feel compelled to say I was? Even when our holidays were ambushed by a hurricane of bureaucratic mishaps, I wasn’t really stressed or anxious. Despite it all, there was this eye-of-the-storm calm at the center of my mind. I knew that this was not just a product of me being laid back, which I am decidedly not, nor was it a lack of concern. I very much wanted to sell our house and very much wanted the boys home. Instead, it was putting into practice the lessons I had learned through all the hardships that were now in the rear window.

Looking back I could see how God had provided and trust that He would do so moving forward. I realized that stress and anxiety are a choice. I can choose to pick them and pretend that by doing so I am actually accomplishing something. I could see all the misspent hours of worry and planning that did nothing but rob me of the joys of the present. So I chose to do the only things I can: trust. Okay, I will admit to obsessing over the tidiness of our house each morning with the confidence that today’s showing would bring someone who was on the fence about the house and then see how neatly the bed was made and declare “This is the one!” And I drove around Miami like a mad woman gathering official stamps and signatures. But then you just have to lay all that work down and wait and trust and wait some more. We are still waiting. Thank goodness not for Andrew who is thriving in his new school and still regaling us with stories of South America. But our house still hasn’t sold and I am still not stressed about it. I’m in the waiting room and any moment they are going to call our name and it’s going to be our turn. And who knows, maybe it will be our turn for more “bad” news, more challenges and “growth opportunities.” But if that’s the case, I hope I have the faith to look over my shoulder at all the mountains we have climbed and face the next one without the extra luggage of anxiety regarding the destination. I advise you to do the same; keep your eyes on the Guide and He will lead you safely home.

Unplanned Parenthood

Seeing as yesterday was my mom’s birthday and today is the 50th anniversary of the notorious Roe v. Wade decision, I thought I would share a few stories that both affirm the sanctity of human life and honor my late mother, Phyllis Moore Spiegel.

When my mom became pregnant with me, she was already the busy mother of three boys and thirty-six years of age. Although my parents were not planning to have a fourth child, they didn’t exactly take a rigorous approach in trying to prevent this, as they later informed me that at the time they were using a rather unreliable spermicide contraceptive. When my mom discovered she was pregnant, she was somewhat apprehensive because, being in her late thirties, she thought of herself as too old to have another child. At some point she shared her concern with her dad who responded by offering to pay for an abortion. My mom obviously declined the offer, essentially telling my grandfather that just because she felt anxious about being an older new mother (at least relative to those days), she had no thoughts of terminating the pregnancy. In fact, she was disturbed by the very suggestion.

Still, my mom continued to struggle with anxiety about having another kid at her age. This continued even after I was born and wasn’t put to rest until she heard some wise words from our pediatrician, Dr. Stopman. One day when she took me in for a check-up, Dr. Stopman asked her how she was doing and my mom shared her concerns with him, saying “I was sitting there in the waiting room, looking around at all those young mothers, and I just feel like I’m too old to be doing this again.” Dr. Stopman looked at my mom and, pointing at me, he said, “he doesn’t think you’re too old.” My mom would later say that after this she never thought about it again. And Dr. Stopman was right. Never once did I think of my mother as “old,” even when she was in her 90s. She was always just my mom—my insightful, kind, good-humored, sometimes curiously enigmatic mom. She remains one of the two most interesting women I’ve ever known. (I’m married to the other one.)

One day when my grandfather was visiting our house a few years later, my mother noticed him pensively staring out the window at me as I was romping around in the backyard. My mom asked him what was on his mind, and he replied, “I look at Jimmy playing and I just feel horrible about the offer I made you to get an abortion.” With the frank honesty that was so typical of Phyllis Spiegel, my mom replied, “Well, Dad, you should feel horrible about it. And you know what? I should have taken your money and used it to pay for a good trip somewhere.” My grandfather smiled and said, “You’re right, honey. That would have served me right.”

As I have reflected on these stories over the years, I have been struck by the profound impact that a simple conversation can have, deciding the direction—or even the existence of—an entire life. I also contemplate the fact that although, from a human perspective, the fate of any one of us might seem uncertain at times, we are all securely in the hands of God—from the moment of our conception until the day we depart this world. As the Psalmist says, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:15-16).

Safety First

Monday Night Football is a near sacred ritual in our home, dating back to Jim’s younger years. In one of my favorite anecdotes from his childhood, little Jimmy, who is the youngest of four boys, would come home from school each week as a young elementary student, eat dinner, do his homework, and go to bed to be woken up in time for kick-off. With Andrew in Bolivia this NFL season, I have picked up the mantle of Jim’s watching companion and embraced Monday night dinners in front of the TV watching football.

Last night I had an after work haircut and didn’t get in till late. Flinging open the front door, my greeting was “Let’s go Bills!” whom I had picked to win only to see Jim stone-faced, somberly watching coverage of Buffalo Bill’s safety Damar Hamlin’s dramatic on-field collapse. There was no trash talk or celebratory end zone dances to be found. Instead, grown men, who are paid to slam other grown men to the ground each

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

week, hid their faces and cried while countless sports commentators and fans sent thoughts and prayers to Hamlin and his family.

I in no way wish to minimize the trauma of those who witnessed the medical personnel’s desperate struggle to revive Hamlin. What his family, teammates and fans witnessed was, I am sure, a horror they will never forget. I applaud the NFL’s decision to suspend play in deference not only to Hamlin but also out of respect for the shock and grief of both teams.

However (you knew a “however” was coming), I do take issue with a great deal of the hyperbole spouted by ESPN commentators and others regarding the significance of this event. Yes, Hamlin obviously experienced a potentially life-altering injury or at least a life-altering event. We can only speculate as to the cause of his cardiac arrest. While it could be entirely unrelated to the blow to the chest he received seconds before he fell to the ground, that seems unlikely. Assuming it was related, this event only differs in severity to the countless smaller, but nonetheless life-altering injuries players experience each time they take the field. How many other players in the very same game received a few more bumps and bruises, a little more damage to their knees, another blow to the head, all of which add up to wear and tear on their bodies which is irreversible, impacting their quality and likely length of life?

And how does this differ from highway workers hit by cars, policemen killed in the line of duty, coal miners with black lungs, etc., except in the size of their paychecks and the amount of attention and concern their injuries arouse? There was a baggage handler killed earlier this week while going about his unglamorous job in an Alabama regional airport. Where were the mourners questioning the safety of his working conditions or calling for the airport to be closed longer than a few hours out of respect?

I’m in no way saying that in the face of such a sudden and dramatic event we shouldn’t be moved, or pause to reflect, or if so inclined to say a prayer. But instead, I first caution against painting Damar Hamlin as a victim. Life is a game of weighing pros and cons and choosing which risks you are willing to take and which you wish to avoid. Hamlin chose an inherently risky profession, with decidedly high rewards. Let’s honor that choice rather than paint him as an oppressed victim of a violent profession.

Secondly, I suggest we all take stock and recognize that if an exceptionally healthy 24-year-old can go to work one day and drop, even momentarily, dead of a heart attack, then who knows what the game of life has in store for the rest of us? Death is just a drive down the highway or a visit to the doctor for any of us. I think that is what stirred such raw emotion among commentators, fans, and players alike. Not the singularity of Hamlin’s collapse but the universality of it. The idea that it could have been me and it will be one day. Are you ready for your final play?

There once was a young man, healthy and strong. And He was engaged in a game of sorts, a high stakes game of life and death. He lived and then He died and then He rose in victory. One day He will return and settle the score. It could be today, it could be tomorrow, it could even be on a Monday night.

The Best and Worst of 2022

It has been another eventful year. Jim continued his work as Head of School at Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, and Amy continued her role as an agent with State Farm Insurance. Now we are looking forward to the next chapter of our lives, as we will be moving to Hillsdale, Michigan where Jim starts work at Hillsdale College next week. As usual, we are closing out the year with summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, food, and family.

Film Experiences

Jim: 2022 was not a particularly good year for me, as regards film. I didn’t have the time to take in as many movies as I normally do. And most of the films I watched were oldies, from the Silver Chalice (Paul Newman’s film debut) to several classic Dirty Harry and James Bond films. Among the new releases I did see, Amsterdam was noteworthy. Well-acted with a strong script and an interesting, if somewhat predictable, plotline. This year we watched the conclusion to Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel. While never matching the quality of Breaking Bad (what TV series possibly could?), Better Call Saul is nonetheless compelling, if only for the tremendous performances by Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. I also enjoyed The Thief, His Wife, and the Canoe, a fascinating four-episode drama about a man who faked his own death in order for insurance money to avoid bankruptcy. Based on a true story, it is a powerful cautionary tale about the tragic outcome that may follow if you refuse to face the just consequences of your actions. If the series had a subtitle, it could be “How to Make a Bad Situation Far Worse.”

Amy: Like Jim, this wasn’t the year of the film for me, not because I didn’t have time but because I have lost patience with Hollywood’s agenda pushing. Most of my watching hours were spent with crime series, true and otherwise. You may call it dark voyeurism, but nothing thrills me more than watching the good guys and gals track down the bad ones. The Puppet Master, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Never Existed, Girl in the Picture, Bad Vegan, Heist and The Tinder Swindler were some of my favorites. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent with Nicholas Cage was a surprising gem, though somewhat profane. A few disappointments were An Enemy of the People (starring Steve McQueen, just in case we are tempted to think Hollywood went woke in this century), The Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (a victim of poor casting despite the treasure trove of talented actors and lack of plot creativity, though the visuals were superb) and Persuasion (I have been anticipating this film version of my favorite Jane Austen novel in “half agony, half hope.” It wasn’t the anachronistic casting that bothered me but the complete reinvention of the characters, especially my beloved Anne Elliot, which lowered it’s worth in my eyes. If you want to make a film about a cynical, alcoholic spinster, fine; just refrain from hijacking the heroine of someone else’s creation and go make your own.)

Food and Music

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year: This year I, along with my senses of taste and smell, fell victim to Covid . . . twice. Therefore, food became a lot more about the company I was sharing it with than the meal itself, which wasn’t such a bad thing. Meals shared with new friends in Bloomington and old friends passing through. A meal graciously brought to my dad’s hospital room and eaten with my sister and mom while we rejoiced in my dad’s recovery from life-threatening blood clots. And, of course, any meal we got to eat as a whole family since those are rare these days. I did conquer the art of croissant making this year, which I am quite proud of. There is nothing more heavenly than layer upon layer of flaky butteriness.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year: In terms of listening experiences, my 2022 highlights were Weezer and Sinatra. Since the early 2000s I had not followed Weezer’s releases very closely. But last Spring their 2021 OK Human album caught my eye—a fully orchestrated collection of songs that is now my favorite Weezer album. The band immediately followed this with Van Weezer, which hails their metal heroes, and in 2022 a series of four 7-song EPs entitled SZNZ, each named for, and released on the first day of, one of the four seasons. That’s nearly 50 songs over the past two years from these guys. And it’s all wonderful stuff. In a completely different stylistic vein, I have greatly enjoyed Frank Sinatra’s Watertown, a concept album released in 1970. The only album in which Sinatra sang over pre-recorded instrumental tracks, it has a very different feel than all of his other material, and in a good way. There is a certain intimacy in the songs that you don’t hear in his other work. Upon its release, the album was met with tepid reviews. But a half century later, Watertown is now widely regarded as one of Sinatra’s best. If nothing else, I recommend you check out my favorite cut from the album, “I Would Be In Love Anyway.” Beautiful.


Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year: Watching Sam emerge as starting goal keeper on the Taylor University soccer team. He had some spectacular moments in goal this year, and he was recently named as a captain on next year’s team. That’s my boy.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  Watching Sam play is almost equal parts thrill and terror for me, so I don’t know that I can say I enjoy it until it’s over. With Andrew away during most of the NFL season, I became Jim’s companion for Sunday football watching and thoroughly enjoyed it. We predicted winners and losers each week and I even managed to come out on top a few times. I also loved watching my Tennessee Volunteers return to their former glory. Go Vols!

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year: The Atlanta Braves getting bounced by the Phillies in the National League Division Series playoffs. I really don’t like how this new playoff system effectively punishes the best teams with long layoffs before their first playoff games. Unlike many other sports, in baseball such layoffs disrupt players’ rhythms, especially hitters, and therefore hurt rather than help teams. Oh well. Hopefully, MLB officials will recognize this and revise the playoff format.

Amy’s Most Painful Sports Moment of the Year:  Falling victim repeatedly to renewed hopes that the Colts really did deserve my allegiance as well as witnessing the demise of Tom Brady. I have never liked the guy, on or off the field, but it’s just sad. As one of the greats, you’ve gotta know when to walk away. 

Good Reads

Jim: I highly recommend Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, an astute study of the historico-philosophical developments which led to the sexual revolution and ultimately our current confused cultural condition regarding sexuality. Rod Dreher was right in calling this one of the most important books of the decade. I also appreciated Pete Hegseth’s Battle for the American Mind, which I used for an LCA faculty book study this Fall. Hegseth traces the history of the progressivist takeover of American public education and issues a compelling call to the growing classical Christian education movement. But the best read of the year for me was a work of fiction: Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. At 1250 pages, reading this book takes commitment, but it is well-worth the journey in terms of the moral and even theological insights that Dumas’s rich, multi-layered narrative provides.

Amy:  My reading slowed down quite a bit this year but I managed to read some great ones: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, A Kim Jong-II Production by Paul Fischer, Intellectuals by Paul Johnson, Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, and Soundtracks by Jon Acuff. Some were heavier than others but all insightful and well worth the time.

Best 2022 Family Memories 

Jim: Although it wasn’t a family memory as such, the highlight of the year for me was when we sent Sam and Maggie down to Bolivia to spend six days with Bailey and Andrew the week before Christmas. A cross-cultural experience for all of our kids to remember, for sure. And they sent us some spectacular photos.

Amy: The birth of Austen’s puppies was definitely the highlight for me. Life truly is a miracle and our dogs are a focal point of love we all share. Car rides with the kids and walks with Jim and the dogs. Watching Bailey launch himself into the world after graduating from college.

New Year’s Resolutions

Amy: Getting off the couch and getting more active. Spend more time reading and less streaming.

Jim:  To post more consistently on Wisdom & Folly!

Happy 2023 everyone!

For Crown and Country

For years while living in Upland, I was a part of a women’s book club. I enjoyed the group for many reasons: it had a long history and I loved being a part of something that spanned decades. It was multi-generational and made up of women at all stages of life which added a depth to our discussions I really appreciated. We had varied tastes in books so it forced me to read books I never would have chosen, some of which I really enjoyed. One such book that I did not appreciate at the time was Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith. This was definitely a book I would not have read on my own, and I never really warmed to it. It was very long and at the end, while I felt I knew a great deal more about Queen Elizabeth’s life, I didn’t feel I knew all that much more about her. My summary to the group was “She has met a ridiculous number of historical figures and led an extremely eventful and interesting life, but she doesn’t seem like a very interesting person.”

from Wikipedia

Though I have strong opinions on the subject, I don’t intend to use this post to go into the credibility of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s claims of mistreatment and prejudice. I will leave that to the royal experts to publicly debate. But there was one statement by Prince Harry which has been rattling around in my brain for the last week that seems worth further explanation, whether you are Team Sussex or Whales.

In discussing his choice of a wife, Prince Harry said “I think for so many people in the family, especially obviously the men, there can be a temptation or an urge to marry someone who would fit the mold, as opposed to somebody who you are perhaps destined to be with…”

There followed clips of Katherine and Meghan, and the viewer, I suppose, is meant to draw the conclusion that Prince William made a calculated decision for someone who “fit the mold” and Prince Harry made the bolder, more courageous decision to follow his heart. This is certainly the advice that every modern day fairy tale would endorse: take a “leap of faith,” look beyond differences in personality, family backgrounds and plans for the future, and go with your gut. I couldn’t disagree more. Going with my gut leads to me sitting on the coach, eating improvised Rice Krispie treats from a bowl at 10 pm. Taking leaps of faith can sometimes lead to wish fulfillment, but it can also lead your life straight off a cliff if you haven’t first determined just where you will be landing.

I don’t believe it is necessary to make evaluative statements regarding the morality or wisdom of choosing a spouse with one’s head or with one’s heart, but rather that one should carefully consider the possible outcomes and accept the consequences of either choice, nor do I think this applies exclusively to one’s choice of life partner. In choosing a husband or wife, career or calling, it seems essential to one’s long-term happiness to accept that by choosing a particular person, profession, or path, one is naturally excluding other options. If I choose a job that pays well but requires long hours, I can’t complain about working overtime. If I choose to work a job with flexible hours and low stress, I can’t complain about lower wages or boredom. Prince Harry should be free to choose a wife who doesn’t “fit the mold,” but it seems unfair to then complain when she doesn’t fit in. Joining an institution steeped in tradition and hierarchy would definitely require loss of autonomy. Leaving that institution would involve loss of another kind. Life seems to be orchestrated with those types of trade-offs as part of the package. Our current cultural trends glorify victimhood in a way that tempts many to paint themselves as helpless. I don’t see the appeal of that mindset. Isn’t it better to take ownership of one’s decisions and their consequences?

This brings me back to Queen Elizabeth and my initial assessment of her as bland. I see now that this “blandness” was a choice on her part, an intentional suppression of personality in service to what she saw as her duty. Now I will leave it to you to decide whether or not the role of Queen of England is a worthy role to devote one’s life to, but I think we can agree that she believed it to be so and was willing to pay the price for a job well done. If, perhaps, more of us embraced our own duty, as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, community members and citizens, and were willing to pay the price required rather than demanding that we have our cake and eat it too, we would have more successful marriages, happier children, and peace between nations. We might not end our lives with millions paying tribute, but I think there would be more jewels in our crowns.

Not All Conspiracy Theories Are Equal

One of the most common pejoratives used these days is “conspiracy theory.” Media pundits often apply it as a term of derision to conveniently dismiss a person or view they don’t like, and this almost always goes unchallenged. Even otherwise nuanced intellectuals often categorically impugn conspiracy theories as foolish. Novelist Oliver Markus Malloy has said that “conspiracy theories are popular among the ignorant, because they offer simplistic answers to difficult questions” (Inside the Mind of an Introvert). And neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar insists, “all conspiracy theories are the product of the subconscious attempt of an ignorant yet creative mind to counteract the fear of the unknown with tales of fantasy” (Mucize Insan: When The World is Family). While perhaps satisfying to the uncurious, superficial observer, such claims are remarkable for their dogmatic assumptions not only that all conspiracy theories are irrational but also that the root psychological cause of conspiracy theories is the same in every case. If for no other reason, such quick and haughty reproaches should give us serious pause to consider the possibility that they protest too much.

Like most cultural memes, the term “conspiracy theory” is rarely carefully defined. The Oxford Dictionary defines a conspiracy theory as “a belief that some secret but influential organization is responsible for an event or phenomenon.” Some examples of obviously absurd conspiracy theories include the claim that the U.S. moon landings were hoaxes, staged in a Hollywood backlot and that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated by U.S. or Israeli operatives or didn’t happen at all, in which case it is claimed that bombs destroyed those buildings, not commercial jets. While it might be appropriate to say that such claims should not be dignified by a critical response, it should be with the understanding that a truly critical response can overwhelmingly demonstrate the ludicrousness of these theories.

But are conspiracy theories always without merit? And should we automatically condemn as irrational anyone who espouses a conspiracy theory? In fact, there are many significant historical events which are widely recognized to have involved conspiracies. The assassination of Julius Caesar was certainly conspiratorial in nature. The Watergate burglary involved a conspiracy of at least five people, probably many more than this, and the later cover-up expanded the circle of conspiracy even further. And numerous Mafia organizations have been exposed over the years, all of which constitute conspiracies of some kind, whether or not those infiltrated high echelons of government. It is an uncontestable historical fact, then, that some conspiracy theories have turned out to be correct. Moreover, many of these seemed absurd to most people at the time, until evidence eventually proved them to be true. The simple lesson, then, is that such theories should never be dismissed tout court. Each should be assessed on its own merits. And failure to do so, as is so typical these days, especially on the American left and in mainstream media, is manifestly a fallacy of faulty generalization.

So it seems that not all conspiracy theories are equal and that some are actually quite rational. Therefore, it is for good reason that certain conspiracy theories are accepted by those open-minded enough to carefully examine the evidence. Ironically, then, Oliver Markus Malloy’s condemnation of all conspiracy theories as problematic because “they offer simplistic answers to difficult questions” actually applies to his own categorical dismissal of conspiracy theories, as his is, indeed, a simplistic answer to a difficult question. Similarly, media pundits and cultural commentators who hastily apply the phrase as a convenient pejorative reveal their own failure to think critically even while accusing others of the same.

So why have such categorial dismissals of conspiracy theories become common parlance these days?  Perhaps, at least in part, it is because of the widespread irresponsible appeal to conspiracies, due in turn to the fact that they are entertaining and more likely to draw “clicks,” “likes,” and website traffic. Perhaps also because of cognitive laziness and an impatience with the process of critical inquiry and the sometimes painstaking evidential scrutiny this entails. More likely, it is because dismissing all such theories is an easy way to further one’s own narrative and hamstring competing views. After all, a sweeping demonizing of all conspiracy theories is a very efficient way to rule out any such theory that threatens one’s political perspective. The problem is that this approach also effectively poisons the well against the discovery of actual conspiracies, however rare these might be.

So, setting aside the more obviously absurd conspiracy claims about flat earth, hoaxed moon landings, and the like, are there any diabolical conspiracies associated with, say, the World Economic Forum, the 2020 presidential election, a Chinese takeover of U.S. businesses, Covid-19 vaccine mandates, or recent U.S. riots? With regard to any of these things, might there be powerful people and organizations working behind the scenes to expand their power or bring about their preferred political aims? We will only know one way or another through critical inquiry. Rejecting all such theories from the outset not only closed-mindedly rules out the discovery of possible truths but also places us in greater danger of being victimized if one of these theories turns out to be true.

History has shown that sometimes evil people band together in secretive ways to do sinister things. And in many cases those who had veridical suspicions about these plots were ignored, ridiculed, or denounced as loony for the accusations they made. Might some of today’s “conspiracy theorists” be correct as well? Time will tell. But dismissing all of them as equally ignorant or psychologically twisted will only slow our progress toward the discovery of truth in each case, and to do so is no more rational than uncritical acceptance of flat earth theory or a moon landing hoax.

Being Pro-Choice

In a historic decision, the Supreme Court has been asked and has answered a fundamental question regarding personal autonomy and freedom: under the law, does one have the basic right to secure one’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? The Court has resoundingly denied that freedom. This decision creates two classes of citizens; one free to go about their daily lives unencumbered and often enjoying pleasure at the expense of the other, subjugated and less powerful class. This class is forced to carry the burdens of others without the right to determine their own future, unable to pursue their dreams and to develop their potential.

I am speaking of course of the monumentally misjudged case of Dred Scott vs Sandford (1857) in which the Court ruled that Scott was the property of another human being and therefore had no legal standing under the Constitution. To me, the parallels between this horrific blot on our nation’s legal legacy and the now overturned Roe vs Wade scream out for comparison. In both cases, the rights of one citizen were denied for the convenience of another. In Dred Scott, he, along with millions of other black Americans, were denied their freedom for the financial gain of their masters. As a result of Roe, tens of millions of children have been stripped not only of their legal rights but their very lives. In both cases, the vulnerable were left unheard and not seen as human beings, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Another similarity between the two is that the arguments made in defense of the unjust actions of the Court often fail to address the fundamental issue being debated: is this a human being who, through no fault of his or her own, has been made dependent and at the mercy of another? Once one recognizes the undeniable fact that we are all one race of human beings, no matter what the color of our skin or the stage of our development, the argument is over. But, at the time of Scott, many argued about the financial devastation which would befall the South if slavery were to be ended just as now people argue about the economic consequences of an unplanned pregnancy for the mother and society. There were even arguments made that slaves were better off as slaves rather than fending for themselves just as many argue that children of unplanned pregnancies or those suffering from various genetic issues are better off dead than alive.

While the unmet needs of women and their children are certainly something we should consider and address, this does not justify the killing of one let alone millions of innocent and helpless children, any more than it justified the enslavement of millions of slaves. Look at the millions of dollars devoted to treating sick and injured children each year in this country; or the enormous economic cost we were asked to pay as a nation and individually through loss of income and other various government mandates during the pandemic. If those situations justify such great financial outlays, shouldn’t we be willing to do the same in order to save the millions of children aborted each year? I’m certainly willing to support various agencies designed to do just that; are you? One would certainly question that willingness on the part of some in the pro-choice movement given the recent wave of vandalism against crisis pregnancy centers.

I think it is also worth noting that the proponents of both slavery and abortion profited handsomely from its continuation. Planned Parenthood, the most recognizable abortion provider in the U.S., makes millions of dollars a year through the dismembering of the unborn. This is done at the expense of not only those children but also their mothers who, we can all agree, are often in a vulnerable place themselves. It is well-documented that not only do PP workers lie to and pressure women into abortions, but also fail to report those who are being exploited by sex traffickers and abusers. Those who call for the pro-life movement to step up and provide resources to pregnant women, as they should and often do, should be equally vocal in their condemnation of what is clearly not an isolated phenomenon. On the topic of Planned Parenthood, it should be noted that like slavery itself, this organization was founded by racists who sought to limit the influence of those they deemed subhuman.

The final comparison I will make between these two cases is the obvious one: they have both been overturned, righting the wrongs of decades of immoral behavior and illogical thinking. In the case of Dred Scott, it was overruled by the 14th amendment which granted citizenship to all those born in the United States regardless of their skin color. In the case of Roe, of course, it was overruled this month by Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The 14th amendment by no means brought immediate equality and was only accomplished after years of bloody battles, not in the courtroom but on the battlefields. But it did bring about an age when former slaves and their descendants were free to contribute mightily to our nation’s legacy. They were free to become lawyers and continue the fight for freedom; free to become doctors and advance our understanding of what it means to be human; free to enter civil service and even rise to the highest offices in the land, including the White House and, yes, the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the case of Dobbs, despite what some seem to think, this decision is very pro-choice. It has not made abortion illegal; rather it has sent the issue back to individual states who now have the freedom to stand on the side of justice and morality or to stand on the side of oppression and murder. The choice seems an obvious one, just as Dred Scott seems to us now. I hope that, in whatever state you may live, you will find yourself making the right choice: the choice to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, that we can truly become a nation “indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

The End of a Matter

There is a passage in the book of Ecclesiastes that has always fascinated me. It is Ecclesiastes 7:8, which says, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.” Specifically, the first clause has always struck me. Why is the end of a matter better than its beginning? Why is finishing better than starting? My quest for a better understanding of this idea naturally prompted me to consult biblical commentaries on the passage, but I found that in most cases the commentators skirt past this clause to focus on the second clause which is far easier to understand and explain, however strange it might be to contrast patience with pride (as opposed to impatience).

So I’ve essentially been left to my own devices to understand why the end of a matter is better than its beginning. Fortunately, personal experience has proven to be an effective interpretive tool in this case. As the years have passed, I have been struck by the vivid truth of this passage as it applies to various events in my life and in human experience generally. It hit me again two weeks ago as we celebrated the graduating class of Lighthouse Christian Academy where I serve as head of school. And it hit me a week before that when our oldest son, Bailey, graduated from Taylor University. In both cases, there was a celebration of completion, the attainment of long sought goals, the realization of the telos for which the students strived for so many years. And that is most definitely a very good thing, even better than the beginning of the journey for each of the graduates, however fun or exciting that might have been for them.

Graduations are positive outcomes, of course. But many human experiences are quite negative, even horrifically so. Here again Ecclesiastes 7:8a is clearly applicable. Whether we are talking about a painful trip to the dentist, an unhealthy dating relationship, or any number of other negative experiences, it is certainly good when such things come to an end. After some such event, it is not uncommon to hear people say, “Man, I’m glad that’s over with!” This seems to be a tacit affirmation of the negative pole of the Ecclesiastes 7:8a principle.

So I would sum up my analysis like this. The end of a matter is better than its beginning because any particular “matter” (experience/event/project) is either good or bad. If the matter is bad, then it is good to have it over with. And if the matter is good, then you still benefit from and even enjoy and celebrate the achievement. Either way, then, the end is better than the beginning.

One might object, however, that it is sad when good things end, such as when a virtuous person dies or when a good friend moves away. How could the end of wonderful things like this be better than their beginning? One of Aristotle’s observations about happiness is useful here. He notes that you cannot know you have had a happy life until it is over. This is because until a life is actually completed it is always possible that it can go awry in some way. Only when a person is dead can it be truly said with confidence that that person had an overall good life. And what is true of an entire lifetime is true of particular events (e.g., a good game or a good evening with friends). So for all of the sadness of saying goodbye to a loved one or to a sweet phase in one’s life, it is nonetheless a blessed thing to be able to say with confidence, “Old Joe was a tremendous guy” or “Didn’t we have wonderful times together!”

All of this thinking about “ends” naturally prompts me to think about the ultimate end of things—the culmination of human history as promised in Scripture. Numerous times in the Bible we are reminded that the end of the matter when it comes to the course of history will be marked by the return of Jesus Christ in power and glory. And that will be goodness on a colossal scale. The writer of Genesis says that when God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, he repeatedly declared them “good.” But as great as that was, it doesn’t compare to what will be achieved in the end—a glory that we are told, often cryptically, is beyond our ability to fathom (cf. Rom. 8:18, 1 Cor. 2:9), a time when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” A time when Christ will rule with perfect justice and righteousness, and perfect joy and fellowship among his people will be established forevermore (Isa. 9:6-7). Now that is an end that is truly better than its beginning!