Why can’t we live up to our ideals?

In the stage production “War Horse,” a story about WWI, the “war to end wars” and its extraordinary toll on soldiers and warring countries’ civilians, the horses are puppets by Handspring http://www.handspringpuppet.co.za/. You can see them on-line. Some are partial bodies, some are full size, the hollow bodies have adults mounted on them. All are animated by people inside them. Even though you can often see the puppeteers inside, it takes only a few seconds to suspend disbelief because the gestures of the animals – grazing, swishing the tail, nuzzling people, feeding, pawing the ground – are so realistic. Your mind knows what is not real, but you desire strongly to disregard that for a while and move into the play and story. It is a very engaging lesson about the horror and stupidity of war.

It has long been one of my ideals that everyone would come to believe the lesson of that play, that you have to be stupid to go to war.

I once was asked to speak on behalf of the military to a Veterans Day assembly. I told the old veterans and family members that when the politicians want to give a war, they should be at the front themselves and fight, rather than call upon other peoples’ sons and daughters to fight because the politicians couldn’t figure out how to get along. I was called on the carpet of the base commander’s office next Monday, and told that I would never again be called upon to represent the military at a public event. And I was promoted. That told me that the higher-ups agreed with my sentiment, even if it offended veterans of past wars. War is stupid, and the fact that the U.S. has been in one for 17 years, far, far longer than in any other, only proves that war solves no problems and causes many others.

It is my ideal to say this as often as possible to as many people as possible. So I don’t wear the poppy, because I think it advocates tolerance, of not approval, of war. It certainly does not criticize war. I don’t think the dead made the ultimate sacrifice, rather, those who continue living with the physical and psychological consequences made the ultimate sacrifice. You can “thank me for my service” all you want, but if we are not taking good care of our vets, and doing our damnedest to stop these wars, I really don’t care for your thanks and I don’t want to honour the dead by ceremony – I want to honour the living and stop the damned wars. This is my ideal.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, I convened some church volunteers, including local politicians, to form a Waging Peace Committee. You know that meme “What did you do in the War, Daddy?” Well I could answer that, of course, but the question that caused me concern now was “What did you do in the peace, Daddy?” I wanted an answer.

We pitched our cause this way: we wanted our federal government to stop providing export credits for the development and sale of weapons and weapon systems created exclusively for export. We got up petitions and got them signed, and sent them off to the government through our local MP. Very soon a bureaucrat from the Defense Ministry flew out to meet with us in person to explain that there were too many jobs attached to this effort, and the government was not interested in acceding to the petitioners’ wishes. So we moved on to encouraging financial contributions to NGO de-mining efforts. Still serving a good cause, but not my ideal. One has to learn to do what can be done, but not give up on the ideals. Opposing inadequate diplomacy and war and everything that supports it, is still my ideal. It is a personal ideal; it should be a social ideal.

I have additional personal ideals. I think it is right and important to be as concerned for others including non-humans (see earlier blog) and the environment, as I am for myself – neither more nor less. It is probably the toughest ethic (I define ethics as a system of consistent thought so that you will apply a set of values consistently in how you treat everyone{thing}) I have ever encountered, much, much tougher than “do no harm” or “do to others as you want them to do to you.” These latter two ethics live on a moral plane of individual actions, one to another. The first requires constant thought about everyone(thing) around me. Once you get used to it, though, keeping it is mind is second nature. Not easy, but familiar and customary. It presumes that you are, by God, part of a larger context all the time and the question of whether that is true, need no longer be asked.

I would like to have additional ideals, some also personal, some social i.e., more about the world around me.


I would like to be able to trust everyone else at face value; to listen to them and accept their words as sincerely spoken and accurate representations of how they intend to act and be. I know from experience that, while I begin an acquaintance with this expectation, it is sometimes impossible to stick with it.

I would like to be able to be kind, not as a form of charity but as a fundamental attitude. The fact that my ideal of trust often doesn’t work in the real world, gets in the way of this one. I don’t know how to be sometimes distrustful and always kind. There is sometimes a point beyond which one must end the acquaintance, though I suppose it is possible to be kind up to that moment, if that is ideal enough. Is it unkind to end an acquaintance?

I would like to be merciful, meaning taking the time and making the effort to pay attention to someone who, or something which, does not have an inherent claim upon me. I actually think that I do pretty well on this, although there are so many changes among people I either know or read about (e.g., sex change, coming out), that it is difficult to change myself so often and so radically to the new understanding of them and a re-evaluation of their claim on me– being merciful doesn’t come easily. Also, as we are challenged to drop ever more prejudices and prior values, it may be very difficult to acknowledge the arrogance which composed my earlier attitudes. One doesn’t have to be arrogant to be merciful.  Each quality would negate the other. It is in looking back that one may think the attitude was arrogant. Evaluating oneself in the past by recent standards can be very difficult. Easier to do so in the present, and hope that good opinion holds when the present is past.

I have never included humility as an ideal. I know it is one of the religious teachings to which I should subscribe, but I just can’t get into it. There is a Jewish teaching that being merciful shows that one is necessarily humble. I suppose this is true – haven’t yet quite worked out a comprehensive understanding of this dynamic, but I can see the vague outlines. I think humility requires looking within deeply enough to put aside opinions of oneself and most of one’s sense of importance. Perhaps when not thinking too greatly of oneself, it is easier to be merciful. I emphasize, in the present (see above paragraph).

I would like, ideally, to know unfailingly when to be strong and when to be gentle; when to admit my fears (Clapper {see earlier blog} cites George Patton’s instructions to gather together every fear you have before battle and acknowledge it before moving ahead – seems to be a form of wisdom) and when to brush past them or simply not admit them into my soul. Having confidence, backed by experience, that this is possible for me, would be ideal.

Social ideal:

I would like, ideally, that politics be about helping the citizen engage the State in a constructive way to solve problems, innovate, and make life better for everyone, rather than be primarily theatre and optics. I would like politicians to be essentially about serving their constituency, and not so much about politics as a career (lately it seems that politicians who lose an election just seek another office somewhere else – makes you wonder whether they simply don’t know how to do something useful).

Informed consent:

Where does informed consent fit into all this? Here: consent comes with the conviction that one will engage an approaching issue in the ideal way. Informed consent is given when, on the basis of good information and reflection, one can conclude that this is as close to the ideal as one will get on this issue at this time. If one is not close enough to the ideal, one veers away, and declines.

In engaging in personal matters, and in the issues of the day, one always has in mind the ideals. One consents to something less than the ideal on the basis of information and experience.

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