Posts Tagged ‘Jack Bielan’

Living A Moral Life

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

I think the phrase “living in a more innocent time” is biased.

Those who be-bopped in the 1940’s might reminisce of an era when daily life was centered on one’s immediate neighborhood, and a view of the world remained unfiltered through the tube of a television set.

For those who grew up in the 1980’s, living it “old school” might refer to relief from disco music and a world before everyone was surgically tethered to their mobile devices.

For Baby Boomers like me who grew-up in the ’50’s and early ’60’s, for the most part it was a time of button-down shirts and “follow the established path”.  The message I got from my Mom and Step-Father was: “Study hard, get good grades, go to college – and more than anything else – be a good person. Stay focused and maintain a high moral standard and you’ll be a success in life.”

As a child I doubt that I entirely understood their criteria, but today if I had to guess a list of the components in their definition of high moral standards, I think it might look something like this:

1) Act With Integrity – I should be fair, tell the truth, not cheat anyone, complete the tasks laid out for me, and do what I know is right.

2) Be Responsible – pay my bills, work in a manner which lets others know I’m reliable and dependable, follow through and recognize that my actions effect others.

3) Be Kind – understand that, despite my surprise, the world doesn’t just revolve around me. I should give others a chance, and whenever possible create an environment in which they can flourish and succeed. Instead of taking someone hostage in a conversation talking only about myself and my troubles, instead I can be a good listener as well as an effective communicator. Most of all, I should remember that empathy, giving of my time and being of service are the most inexpensive, yet most invaluable gifts I can offer to anyone.

4) Respect My Relationships – I don’t get to hurt people for the sake of my own momentary gratification.  I should acknowledge my opportunities for physical interaction, but not act on every impulse just because I have it.

5) Be My Own Version Of “Courageous” – not the comic book variety, but seize real life opportunities to voice my opinions, help others who can use a hand, and find strength to walk through my life’s challenges even when I think I can’t, and..

6) Be Grateful – even when I feel like I’ve got less than someone else, because in reality I’ve probably got more than my share.

But in truth, from my vantage point today, I know that life isn’t always as clear cut as just following the rules; our lives are rarely the straight lines our parents hoped they’d be.

At this second decade of the twenty-first century, in the midst of a technological revolution which creates miracles of communication and improvement in virtually every arena of our lives – along with all the marvels has come an undeniable, unprecedented blur of the necessity of living by a strong moral code.

Where we used to only occasionally see on television or read in newspapers of the ill-gotten rewards of others of lesser moral standards, today those people and their greed are thrust in front of us twenty-four hours a day on our phones, tablets and 70″ 4K bigger-than-life screens.

We see self-serving politicians and liars and cheaters of every variety amassing financial fortunes and throwing it in our faces – either gloating in their riches or cajoling us to join them with messages of “screw the other guy – let me teach you my shortcuts and you’ll live like I do – for a small one-time fee of $299 plus shipping charges.”

More and more, vulgarity, violence, ridicule and immorality seem to be the order of the day. Kim Kardashian, a woman who has risen to fame solely on the basis of horrific personal choices, has 27.5 million followers on Twitter. We shudder to think how many of them are young people who read her worst-of-all-possible-role-model thoughts every hour, and are influenced by her absentee values and misguided actions every single day.

And via today’s films, courage is often portrayed as oafish slackers bucking the system or cartoonish, tattooed Tough Guys and Tough Girls serving-up portions of indiscriminate violence and deafening explosions, blowing-up everything in sight – no matter how defenseless or sacred the targets – with an inevitable final scene showing utter hopelessness and facing “the end of the world as we know it”.

And saddest of all, personal dignity and potentially meaningful relationships are under assault. Insidious, deceptively casual terms like “hooking-up” and “friends with benefits” not only tell young women they shouldn’t hold onto the precious gift of giving themselves, but are expected not to do so. It’s no longer a question of “Should I?”, but instead “Am I going to do it tonight or wait all the way until tomorrow?”

And for those in committed relationships, there’s foul-mouthed talk show hosts on satellite radio promoting websites which enable married men and women to more easily become serial adulterers.

So the question becomes “What does living a moral life in today’s society look like?” and more importantly, “Why should I bother?”

Lest I paint myself a hypocrite, I’m no prude.  I’m a musician – how could I be? And I’m also no expert. I’m neither a sociologist nor clergy, and I can’t tell you where in the Bible it says how we should conduct ourselves in 2015.  To tell you the truth, in the last few weeks, knowing I was going to speak on this topic to my synagogue congregation, I struggled for an answer.

Surprisingly, I found the jumping-off point for my resolution in, of all places, social media.

I found it on Facebook.

As I was reading the other day, I began to realize that for every post advocating some kind of dehumanizing something-or-other, there are fifty posts instead celebrating the goodness of life:

A young father’s video of his son hitting his first home run…  a gifted photographer showing a picture of a Colorado sunset that she took and edited on her phone. Slogan after slogan from one person after another talking about encouragement, insight and valuing the sanctity of every day of our precious lives… and a hundred birthday wishes to a guy who maybe needs to be reminded that so many people are glad he’s around.

A video of a seventy-year-old war veteran flying in formation at a festival, with his son in the next plane over.. a woman bravely battling cancer sharing her view from her room in the hospital.

And a daughter proudly showing pictures every day of her eight-month-old twin boys, so a Grandpa three thousand miles away and all his friends can see that God, in His Almighty wisdom, has given her the healing gift of being the spectacular mother she was clearly meant to be.

And there it was, there was that word: “God”.

I almost forgot.

Whether it’s 1945 or 2015, I believe God’s still here. No matter how disagreeable the actions of others or how much they’re thrown in my face, I believe that God’s still with me –  and the better life I live, the closer I get to stay to Him.

I shouldn’t need to be reminded that real courage starts with taking the high road and surviving life’s toughest challenges – not with the size of an actor’s bicep or some depressed screenwriter’s imagination.

And I have to remember that every generation of kids have undue influences thrown at them – and yet somehow God watches over them and most of them somehow miraculously survive.

And the temptations of sleazy websites are really nothing new: opportunities for husbands and wives to violate the sanctity of their marriages have always been there and always will be.  It’s always gonna depend on their individual devotion to their families and willingness to do the right thing.

In all my fretting about the world at large, I guess I’m never too old to be reminded that my parents were right: acting with integrity, being responsible, being kind, respecting my relationships and being my own personal version of “courageous” and “grateful” will, in the end, always be everything that they’re cracked-up to be.

Thank you, God for the reminder.

Of Expectations

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

As surely was the case for millions worldwide, I experienced a myriad of emotions as I watched the television broadcast of this week’s Inaugural Ceremonies.

Many of the musical presentations were Cheesecake Factory delicious to my ears. What a glorious day for chordal choices – from the blissful yearnings of James Taylor’s humble rendition of “America The Beautiful” to the genius musical arrangement of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” sung by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir – a miraculous ensemble which incorporates only a few professional singers, instead choosing to raise-up former crack-addicts, homeless people and even a few lawyers.

If you missed that performance, stop reading this column NOW – I mean it. Navigate to Youtube and put in “Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sings Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. Scroll down to the video posted by TPMTV or by Culturemix 1- they seem to have the best audio mixes. Then turn off the television, quiet the dog and listen to how a woman named Carol Cymbala and a man named Jason Michael Webb were guided to compose the musical arrangement of their lives.

I’ll wait.

If I’ve ever questioned the power of music, the potential of humanity living together in harmony, or how lucky I am to live in this great country, there’s my answer.

Along with the euphoria, I felt an immense sense of pride and gratitude. And along the way, the thought of “expectations” came to mind.

Watching this potpourri of our fellow citizens determinedly engaging firsthand in this momentous event, I began to wonder what expectations I should have of myself over the coming year. At this point in my life, what can I realistically expect from myself? Will I be more a participant or spectator? Will I embrace life more than ever or retreat to the sidelines? What should I expect of my willingness, my beliefs, my character?

Obviously I expect to be honest: life’s too short for lying and denying. Every time I’m less than truthful to myself or anyone else, it never turns out well.

I should expect myself to be fair. Whenever I’m treated unfairly, more often than not I react with resentment or self-pity. Knowing how debilitating those feelings are, how can I purposefully infuse them on anyone else?

Even though it seems obvious, I should remind myself to be kind. No one likes being inappropriately diminished or purposefully unacknowledged. That it takes no more effort to be acknowledging rather than dismissive is undeniable, and I always feel better afterward.

I should expect myself be focused, pragmatic and avoid envy. Someone once said that ideas, courage and determination are the stuff that dreams are made of. Focus and reality can be another matter, but for this year, I expect myself to be clear about setting my goals and staying focused – and no matter ever my age, to keep reaching for my dreams.

I should expect myself to be wise yet teachable, trusting and loving, and to be accepting, willing to be of service and kind to my mind and body.

Most of all I should expect myself to ultimately arrive at gratitude for each and every blessing in my precious, precious life.

I think these expectations are part of what the Ages are trying to teach me, sealed by an assurance that Almighty God really does love and adore all of us, and wants only to guide us to live our most fulfilled, meaningful lives.

Thank you Mrs. Cymbala and Mr. Webb for touching my artistic soul. I expect myself to do the best I can to return the favor.


A Question Of Acceptance

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

I’ve never much liked the word “acceptance” – not the general umbrella of evaluating others’ philosophies of course – but rather in terms of daily life choices. It always conjured-up feelings of compromise or resignation or defeat.

“The runner accepted that he couldn’t go any further in the race…. the dancer accepted that she’d never become a prima ballerina…. the patient accepted the finality of the doctor’s diagnosis”.

Why shouldn’t a sprinter resolve to get up earlier, exercise more and train harder so that next time maybe he will win that 10K?

If she really wants it badly enough, why shouldn’t a dancer devote years at the barre and fight for a role in “Swan Lake”?

And isn’t it good common sense to get a second and a third opinion in light of a serious diagnosis? We’re constantly reminded that, despite their years of training, doctors aren’t gods. How many times do we hear stories of patients overcoming the odds and living for decades beyond their physician’s estimations?

Who doesn’t like a story of courage and determination?  At last count, that video of a dowdy-yet-destined-for-success Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed A Dream” has logged over ninety-five million views.  And along with ten megapixel pictures of our friends’ latest sushi plates and trips to Aruba, aren’t our Facebook pages and emails also peppered with daily recitations of inspiration and encouragement to buck the odds?

But lately I’ve become aware of another concept of acceptance.

A book to which many of my friends subscribe suggests that, in an alternate form of thinking, acceptance may be a good thing. It goes so far as to say that it actually may be an answer to a lot of my problems.

It suggests that whenever I’m agitated, it’s probably because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of life – to be unacceptable. Furthermore, it says that I’ll probably find little peace in my heart and mind until I accept them as being exactly the way they’re supposed to be at the moment. It further suggests that nothing happens by mistake in God’s world, and that the very key to my happiness may lie in accepting life on life’s terms – concentrating not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.

At first glance, it’s confusing, but the last part helps make it clear. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean I have to be defeated. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work for my dreams and goals or have courage in my convictions. But it does mean that I don’t serve myself well when I spend my time worrying about, obsessing over and resenting other people’s lives.

A runner who obsesses over the other guy who’s faster, rather than working on improving his own skills, risks defeating only himself.  A dancer who drowns in envy at the success of another performer, rather than working to be the best she can be on her own, lessens her chances to fulfill her dreams. A patient with a difficult diagnosis who succumbs to self-pity and resentment risks blinding himself to the everyday miracles which make each moment of all of our lives so precious.

I recently read that a basic tenet of living a good life is continually seeking a balance of our priorities. It seems clear that another key to living my best life may also include finding a balance of acceptance.


Tom Swift Gives Service

Monday, November 28th, 2011

More than a century ago, the first of a collective of authors adapted the pseudonym “Victor Appleton” and began writing novels about a fictional character named Tom Swift. The hero was a young inventor who, over the years, prophetically envisioned portable movie cameras, diesel locomotives, house trailers, motorcycles and sending photos by phone – all long before the technologies were in place.

But even the Appleton authors could never have foreseen the technological universe in which you and I live today. We’re a gadget-laden, keyboard-tapping, button-pushing society with instant gratification expectations; knock-you-dead miracles are an everyday occurrence packaged in the latest app on the newest tablet or touch screen.

And with the flick of a switch we’re privy to celebrities’ misbehaviors, gourmet recipes for Strawberry Shish Kebab, remote robotic cancer surgeries and live video from the Western Wall.

It’s truly a miraculous time to be alive.

But as our physical world compulsively compresses to accommodate our bedroom computer screens, I’m wondering if the landscape of our everyday lives is in danger of  becoming more narrow.  While many folks use the tools of technology to enlarge the scope of their day, we’re under siege from a staggering epidemic of isolation.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t unintentionally killed an hour or a morning having gotten sucked into a view of the world through cyber eyes. And in many cases, that’s not a bad thing: we’re digesting information at record pace and constantly nudging that eleventh percent of our grey matter into action.

But when those hours turn into days and the days into nights, maybe we need to find a better way – and there’s no better path than getting out into real life.

Recently I had the opportunity to lead a group of volunteer singers performing on a Sunday morning for  residents at the Jewish Home For The Aged in Reseda, California.

I gotta tell you – there’s nothing like it.  There’s nothing like switching off the screens, getting dressed and going out into the world and interacting with our fellow human beings. There’s nothing like seeing another person’s face light- up from our efforts.

And there’s nothing like giving service – real one-on-one, face-to-face service.  It may not be as conveniently titillating as an hour on Yahoo, but it’s us living our own best lives instead of vicariously living someone else’s.

As this new year draws to a close, along with lusting after the latest technological wonders, maybe we’ll also recognize them for their potential negative impact and be appropriately wise in our choices. I’m boldly certain that none of us will have deathbed regrets of wishing we’d spent more time on our technology.

It’s a great world out there, and the opportunities are waiting for us – now. Isolating be damned: there’s people to help and lives to be lived.

Here’s to a healthy, happy New Year for you and all those you hold dear.