Scott Cawelti Photo
  • The Unexamined Life Can Kill--The Danger of Meaninglessness

    • Posted on Oct 11, 2015
    Here's this morning's WCF Courier column.  Why seeking and finding meaning makes all the difference--and that would be positive meaning.  

    In my decades of teaching at UNI, a year seldom went by that I didn’t notice at least one young, white male who fit the profile of a mass shooter.  Right in my class.   

     Sullen, usually slouched, no smiles, never contributing to discussions.  Often these sad students dropped the class, or may as well have.  

     Such lonely souls worried me, even when they didn’t disappear.  They just seemed to give up, and came to class in body only. If they finished, they were undistinguished and unknown.    
    When they have access to guns, they’re potential shooters.  And most have access to guns.   

    Gun control?  With millions of weapons already out there, that seems like a dead end.   Still, we need at least as much control for gun ownership as for car ownership.  Well regulated, as the second amendment says.     

     Beyond that, the only hope I see is spiritual. 

     I don’t mean imposing a set of religious beliefs.  That would be as unconstitutional as confiscating guns. 

     These lost students and dropouts suffer from feeling that their lives are essentially hollow, meaningless exercises in futility. No wonder suicides are common.   

     We now live in a toxic cultural stew: Competition, individualism, violent media depictions that center on gunplay, and no values beyond protecting lonely and fragile egos. 

     Last year I co-taught a course where we discussed several films and books about moral choices.   Many of the characters we studied suffered from the soul-sickness that leads to depression and potentially suicide.   

     Class discussions focused on the differences among characters who survived, prospered, and eventually found meanings that gave them life and hope.   Other characters became depressed and descended into despair and suicide.   

    Three contrasting examples: Neil Perry in the film Dead Poet’s Society, Edna Pointellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Viktor Frankl in his nonfiction holocaust memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. They all reveal the same powerful lesson:  Meaninglessness can be fatal.    

     Neil Perry committed suicide, not because he had not found meaning, but because he was prevented from realizing it by his authoritarian father.  
    At the point where Neil would have chosen to find a fulfilling career, his father insisted on forcing him into a career about which he cared nothing.  In a fit of depression about the meaninglessness of his future life, Neil commits suicide.  

     Edna Pointellier discovers that her marriage is a sham and unsalvageable.    She tries an affair, then distracts herself with various hobbies, but found nothing she cared about. For her, suicide seems a better alternative than a living a meaningless life. 

     Viktor Frankl, in contrast, writes about a genuine solution.  Frankl survived horrific traumas as a prisoner in Auschwitz, where he developed his ideas about creating and living a meaningful life.  Man’s Search for Meaning deserves serious attention as an antidote to meaninglessness. 

     At the risk of oversimplifying, Frankl believes that every moment involves choices, and consciously using that moment to make positive choices makes all the difference.  But you have to know it’s possible.   

     As Frankl puts it,  “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 

     I’m well aware that someone who feels rejected and lonely, who’s driven by obsessions and self-pity, who has access to guns, probably won’t suddenly find a meaningful better life.  It has to happen early, and often.   

     I’m talking about a widespread and constant conversation about finding positive larger meanings beyond the self.  Religions offer one way, as does spiritual seeking, commitments to causes, vocations, and powerful relationships with genuine intimacy and love. 

     Without any sense of meaning, people become dangerous to themselves and others.  

     The unexamined life can kill.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Death
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Wise Conservatives Needed

    • Posted on Sep 27, 2015
    Here's this morning's (9-27) Courier column.  It's about how little wisdom we see on the national political scene, particularly among the GOP candidates for President.  With the Pope's visit, we're seeing a huge split among conservatives--instead of changing their minds about climate change, etc. they reject the Pope, as do Catholics, amazingly enough. 

    Do adults ever change their minds?  I'm beginning to believe that very few ever do.  Where are the wise conservatives who can, in fact, change their minds.   

    Wisdom—the “better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln so memorably put it—is never in long supply.  We all need more from everyone.  

     It’s the ability to take the high road, the long view, to accept the things you cannot change, to radiate gratitude and kindness, to empathize more than criticize, to recognize that we’re all in this together.   

     On the current scene, Pope Francis best exemplifies wisdom, and Catholics rightly and mostly support him for what he’s doing for their Church.  He’s energizing and challenging, a transformative figure.  

     He’s still a conservative, understand.  He supports the basic tenets of Catholicism, yet wisely challenges aspects of them. 
    Conservatives believe in tradition, authority, sanctity, and loyalty as core values.  Pope Francis has exhibited all of these in his speeches and behavior.   Yet he also insists that authority can go too far. 

     “Who am I to judge?” he said in reference to gay priests.  He’s also been following the humble path of all genuine spiritual leaders, literally washing the feet of poor and homeless people.   That startles everyone.   

     The polar opposite of the Pope, would be—duh—Donald Trump.  He’s the role model for fools and folly, for ignorance and ego.  He currently leads the Republican field.  Wise conservatives must feel mortified.   

     I’m among the first to admit that any working government needs a balance of conservatives with their insistence on tradition, etc. and liberals, whose core values 
    of equality, justice, diversity, and change inevitably clash with conservatives’ values.     Ideally, somewhere between those two a balance emerges.  Too much of either ideology leads to indefensible policies and unsustainable practices. 

     That’s where we need wisdom.  And that’s where the current crop of GOP contenders fall short.  Perilously, frighteningly, shockingly short, with Trump leading the pack to the bottom.  

    He’s probably the most foolish human being in the western hemisphere, a fool’s fool.  Worse, he’s probably a phony fool, putting on a bully mask to garner support.  
    In contrast, wise conservative leaders, from Pope Francis to Eisenhower to (at times) Reagan, the elder Bush, and Colin Powell all deserve respect and credit for upholding conservative principles, but doing it wisely.   

     Where is such wisdom in the current GOP field?  They use Obama as a scapegoat for all the world’s ills, they lie about his background and record, they cannot give him any credit or gratitude for his accomplishments.  That would include lowering the deficit, expanding health care coverage, growing attention to climate change (which the Pope supports), serious use of negotiations to resolve conflicts (Cuba and Iran) and so on.  

     Wisdom begins with giving credit where credit is due.  That sets the stage for focusing on where real disagreements lie.  Then the work starts, and everyone benefits.    
    A reverse case in point, now generating massive controversy, is the GOP’s Planned Parenthood defunding.  Carly Fiorina’s impassioned address at the GOP debate could have begun with her admitting that abortions cannot legally be funded by the government, and that abortion services amount to just 3 percent of women’s health services that Planned Parenthood provides.  

     Then she might have asserted that those videos were in fact disturbing, and she would support an investigation to determine if the group was selling “body parts,”
    which is flat-out illegal.   

     That approach would have boosted her wisdom credentials. Instead, she took the fool’s low road, referring to stock video footage not related to Planned Parenthood, and made a blatant attempt to smear the organization.  

     GOP lawmakers continue on this path with threatening to defund the entire federal government over a non-issue that whips up their base. 

    Where are the leaders who would side with the Pope and other wise conservatives to stop this foolishness? 

     We need them, now.   

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Conservatives/Liberals
    • Politics
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
Contact Scott Header
Contact Scott Photo
Brothers Blood Book
James Hearst
Landscape Iowa CD