Posts in Thought Tools

Don’t Build a House; Build a Boat

January 15th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 27 comments

I’ve noticed that when someone in a group casually says, “Oh, I live on my boat down in the harbor” everyone hearing him perks up with interest.  Eager questions quickly follow.  But when someone says, “I live in my car behind the supermarket,” people go quiet and someone changes the subject.

There are, of course, many differences between living in a car and on a boat, but I enjoy this observation by an author, Arthur Ransome, who plays a big role in my family’s reading.  “The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage.  The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.” 

Someone living in his car is, well, living in his car.  (Living in a fully-equipped RV is quite different.) But someone living on a boat is on a journey. At any point he could cast off the mooring lines and head to Haifa, Honolulu, or Hong Kong.

Feeling settled is very seductive but feeling unsettled is more productive.  To their parents’ dismay, God arranged things so that when approaching those teenage years, children start feeling unsettled.  Other than when with their friends undergoing the same stage, young people approaching adulthood often feel they don’t really belong anywhere.  The last time they felt comfortably ‘at-home’ was as children cocooned in the security of parents and family.  The next time they are going to feel ‘at-home’ will be once they’re in their own homes. 

Without that God-given incentive, young people would likely want to remain as children in their parents’ homes forever.  That symptom of teenagerhood, the vague indefinable anxiety of not belonging anywhere, eventually helps trigger the quest to find a home by building one’s own. 

Regardless of how bad they may be, current circumstances possess inertia that is reflected in idioms like “Better the devil you know…”. A Jewish woman whose children live nearby us survived several years in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen concentration camps.  She bore the number A-8603 tattooed on her arm.  She used to say, “Being in the camps was gehenom (hell) but emerging from the camps after liberation in 1945 was almost as bad!”  While the concentration camps and slave labor were absolutely horrific, and life was always in jeopardy, at least there was an infrastructure. Freedom was frightening; there was no structure at all.

Whether you are a single person vaguely contemplating matrimony, a harried mother wishing she could get her household under control, or a business professional struggling to build a profitable enterprise, just continuing to do the familiar exerts a powerful appeal, even when the familiar is unpleasant and unsatisfying.

Desiring tranquility is chasing an illusion.  It contradicts the reality of life which is not meant to be a relaxing snooze on a sunny beach.  Wanting to be settled in that way is a little like someone feeling so secure that he unlocks his door, turns off his intruder alarm, and goes to sleep.  Nobody is surprised to hear that uninvited nocturnal visitors inflicted losses upon him.  Ancient Jewish wisdom is quite specific about the negative effects of seeking tranquility. 

Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned…
(Genesis 37:1)

The Hebrew word for “settled” is VaYeSHeV and it hints at seeking tranquility.  Ancient Jewish wisdom points out that after Jacob ‘settled down’ the disagreements between his sons, between Joseph and his brothers, escalated to tragedy.  In other words, turning off and tuning out (as the Hippies used to say) is not an option for live people living life passionately.  If you decide to withdraw from the ever-fresh opportunities and challenges of life, God sends something your way in order to get your attention.

Let’s see another instance of where Scripture uses that word ‘settled’,  VaYeSHeV: י-ש-ב

And Israel settled in Shittim whereupon the people began to [behave immorally]
with the daughters of Moab.
(Numbers 25:1)

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that on their lengthy journey through the desert, Israel usually ‘encamped’.  They didn’t usually settle.  Encamped suggests an awareness of the temporary nature of one’s condition and a heightened state of alertness.  By contrast, settling hints at complacency which can invite problems.  Sure enough, settling in Shittim brought Israel a whole heap of problems.

The opening verse of the Book of Psalms:

Happy is the man who didn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked and didn’t stand in the ways
of sinners and didn’t settle in the company of scoffers.
(Psalms 1:1)

Ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizes that if life forces you into proximity with less than ideal people, keep on walking.  If you have no choice but to talk with them, don’t sit down, remain standing in order to remind yourself that you’re not joining them. Finally, whatever you do, never settle down with those people.  Of course, the Hebrew word for settle is again that same word we’ve seen before; the word that suggests throwing in the towel and giving up the fight.

It goes without saying that we all need our anchors in life.  As I repeatedly remind listeners to my podcast, the more that things change, the more we must depend upon those things that never change.  It is only by knowing exactly what anchors in our lives never change that we are liberated to embrace change.  It is what allows us to escape the tyranny of our current condition.  Having those anchors allow us to cast off the mooring lines that tie us to yesterday and thrill to the fight and challenge that is tomorrow’s journey.

 

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Get Ready for Mother’s Day

January 8th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 5 comments

Mother’s Day is sacrosanct. It is almost a law of nature. Nobody dare disparage the purchase of those boxes of chocolate and the saccharine-flavored greeting cards that accompany them. Few would discourage dragging mom out to a crowded restaurant for that obligatory Mother’s Day meal. Were I to  question its value as a revered date on our calendar closer to its date in May, I would be excoriated for blasphemy. This week however, my Thought Tool can be welcomed as, oh say, research.

You see, here is what bothers me about it: Most would agree that the Ten Commandments lie at the core of Western civilization. Well, the Fifth Commandment doesn’t instruct us only to honor our fathers and mothers on two special days each year, does it? No, the Commandment is valid for 365 days each year and 366 in leap years.

My wife and I have always suspected that observance of an annual Mother’s Day or Father’s Day actually diminishes observance of the Fifth Commandment. Not wanting to run the risk of that happening, we just declared from our children’s infancy that in our home, every day would be Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

To my relief, our children accepted this, but on growing a little older, they inquired about another verse found early in the 19th chapter of Leviticus.

Everyone should fear his mother and father.  
(Leviticus 19:3)

Contrasting this with that Fifth Commandment which did so much for our family’s lifestyle, they asked, “Why reverse the order of father and mother?” In the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and mother” but in Leviticus, “Fear your mother and father”.  Does the Bible instruct us to honor our fathers more than our mothers but to fear our mothers more than our fathers?

Of course not! The Bible never asks us to do the easy and the natural. In fact, its very greatness is how it introduces us to the revolutionary idea that makes Western civilization possible. Namely that it is not only possible, but vital that we overcome nature, particularly our own. Behaving naturally is not the goal, dominating our nature is.

Toilet training a young child is an early time this lesson is administered. Don’t relieve yourself when it would be natural to do so, just as animals do. Be unnatural. Hold it in until an appropriate time and until you’re in an appropriate place. Behaving naturally is not the goal; dominating our nature is.

Although many in America consider it uncivilized to eat without first saying a blessing of gratitude for the food, it would be hard to find instructions about grace before meals in the Bible.  However, in the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy we are clearly instructed to give thanks after eating.

And you shall eat, be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God. 
(Deuteronomy 8:10)

Ancient Jewish wisdom assures us that most of us feel considerably more spiritual and holy when hungry. (This dictum must be related closely to the one about no atheists in foxholes!) Fasting is necessary to observe the Day of Atonement because it puts us in the mood to atone. Since hunger induces piety, it is completely natural for all normal, sensitive humans to say grace prior to satisfying their hunger. Thus, we can be counted on to do so without instruction. What is unnatural is for the satiated diner with bulging belly, to pause prior to staggering away from the table in order to express profound gratitude to the Creator. That is an amazingly unnatural feat and it is precisely what is demanded of us.

Similarly, most of us feel a natural respect toward our mothers while we feel a natural fear of our fathers. I know that as a child, I much preferred my frequent mischief to be discovered first by my mother. Thus the Fifth Commandment teaches us the unnatural. Honor your father as much as you would naturally honor your mother. Then, in Leviticus, fear your mother just as much as you naturally fear your father. In other words, always strive to be far better than nature dictates. Behaving naturally is not the goal, dominating our nature is.

Mother’s Day may be part of nature, but it is unnatural and far more desirable to make today and tomorrow, and yes, everyday, just as much a Mother’s Day as will be May 12th.  If you do this really well, perhaps good, old Mom will let you off that dreadful Mother’s Day lunch.

Another question on which the Bible gives us guidance is which relationship gets priority:  our spouse or child. Early in Genesis, we find advice that differs for men and women. We discuss this and many other tips for marriage in our audio CD, Madam, I’m Adam: Decoding the Marriage Secrets of Eden. Right now, both the physical and download versions are on sale.

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Out with the Old?

December 31st, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 18 comments

It is quite exciting to tell ourselves, “This year is a new chance.”

“This year will reveal an improved version of ourselves. Just wait and see how our marriages, families and businesses thrive. It’s an opportunity for a new beginning.”

I’m all for looking ahead and upgrading our game. But let’s not be too quick to bury the past.

Imagine telling our kids, “Guess what!  We’re going to Disneyland in three years’ time!”  Or, “Guess what, Honey!  We’re being transferred to Paris for two years; our flight’s this afternoon.”  Both scenarios are equally ludicrous.  It is also as absurd to fire an under-performing employee and give him twenty-four months’ notice as it is to tell him that he must be out and off the premises within an hour. What time is right?

How long should you spend psyching yourself up to propose marriage to your girlfriend? A week? A month? An hour?

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Natural Limitations

December 25th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 1 comment

Here is a Thought Tool quiz:

Early in 1845, Henry David Thoreau, along with about twenty of his friends, began a two-and-a-half-year long party in a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord Massachusetts.  True or False?

In 1971 Ted Kaczynski, his wife, six children, a nanny, a tutor, and three puppies moved to an isolated mountain cabin in Montana from where he later sent bombs through the mail injuring dozens of people and killing three. True or False?

Brilliant twentieth century photographer Ansel Adams, who specialized in capturing the glory of America’s national parks and other natural wonders, left a legacy of thousands of pictures depicting happy crowds enjoying their natural outdoor heritage. True or False?

With thirty members of his Rotary Club, Chris McCandless hiked into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. After being awed by nature’s grandeur, he returned home to Virginia.  True or False?

Ready for the answers?  All four statements are false. (I am sure you hardly needed me to tell you that.)  Thoreau was alone at Walden Pond.  The Unabomber lived in lonely isolation for nearly thirty years.  It is difficult to find any Ansel Adams photographs containing even one human image.  In his book, “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer relates how McCandless hiked alone and died alone, tragically and unnecessarily. 

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Fire, Frauds and Feminists

December 18th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 28 comments

Ready for a quiz?   Is the following news report true or false?   A famous explorer just returned from his latest expedition with shocking news.  He has located a remote and isolated island culture that generates electricity using the heat from nuclear reactors.  What astounded him was that these islanders who had mastered nuclear and electrical technology were primitive in all other ways.  They created electricity but used it only for lighting fires.  They had no knowledge of medication, artificial fabrics, or transportation.  They had no electrical appliances in their kitchens.  In fact, they had no kitchens.  They cooked outside their huts over wood fires that they ignited from huge electrical sparks obtained from their nuclear power plants.  Well, what do you say? True or false?

Oh yes, I know you answered, “False,” but did you mean that you considered the story highly improbable or are you certain that it’s demonstrably untrue?  The story is not only improbable but also impossible.  The explorer is a fraud.  There is an inevitable sequence to scientific discovery.  No culture has or ever will discover the secrets of atomic structure before they understand the chemistry of the periodic table.  Once people have probed the secrets of magnetism, the discovery of electricity will inevitably follow quite quickly.

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Flames, Family and Finance

December 10th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 13 comments

In which countries is it easiest to form a new business?  You’d think that with more than two-hundred years of entrepreneurial culture, the United States would rank fairly high.  And we did.  Until about 1962, starting a new business in the United States was quicker, cheaper, and easier than anywhere else.  Not surprisingly, the country enjoyed the highest rate of new business startups of anywhere in the world.

However, since then, America has been steadily slipping and sliding down the rankings until today the country ranks behind Poland, Lithuania, New Zealand, Singapore and about ten others.  Concurrently however, over the same fifty years, the number of U.S. government programs taxing money away from those who work for it and offering it to others has skyrocketed.   It is made available almost on request in the form of cash, free food, free cell phones, free housing certificates, and so on to almost everyone who applies. 

Not only has the number of give-away programs soared, but it has become ever easier to join the ranks of the receivers.  Why would a society of rational people make it harder for folks to start businesses and easier to become dependent upon one’s fellow citizens?

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Fat is Fine

December 4th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 9 comments

John Steinbeck’s 1937 short novel, Of Mice and Men, always brings a lump to my throat.  It tells the story of two migrant farm workers, George and Lennie, during the Depression.  Attempting to summarize it here would be futile.  It would also be a crime against great writing.  If you’ve never read it, I recommend you do so soon. For now, I quote a brief exchange that occurs in chapter three:

“Lennie drummed on the table with his fingers.  “George?”

“Huh?”

“George, how long’s it gonna’ be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the land, an’ rabbits?”

You’ll have to read it to find out about the rabbits, but George and Lennie sustain themselves with their dream of their own little farm where they’ll live in comparative luxury.  Living on the fat of the land is an expression used widely in English literature and is correctly attributed to Pharaoh’s speech to Joseph in the Bible.

…and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you will eat of the fat of the land. (Genesis 45:18)

But this is not the first time in the Bible that the phrase ‘fat of the land’ is used.  Many chapters earlier, Isaac evokes it when he blesses his two sons, Jacob and Esau.

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Reach for the Stars – Stay Grounded

November 26th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 9 comments

When I was seven, my parents signed me up for swimming lessons. For the first three days, the teacher discussed buoyancy, backstroke, and breathing.  We dunked our heads into basins of water and blew bubbles. We never even got our feet wet. 

The next weekend my parents took us to a pool.  My father, eager to see what I had learned, asked me to demonstrate.  I explained that I would need a blackboard.   This did not impress my father.  He walked me to the deep end of the pool deck, picked me up and promptly threw me into the water. After a moment of shock, I began swimming.

This method of instruction, let alone fathering, may not be in favor today.  Personally, I remember feeling rather proud of how quickly I learned to swim.  But whatever you think of the methodology, there is a lesson to be learned. The best way to own new information is to apply it. Few of us would want to be operated on by a surgeon who aced his written exams but never wielded a scalpel. There is a reason that driver education courses take place in the car as well as the classroom.

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No Margaritas for Me

November 19th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 10 comments

As the U.S. population ages, many members of the baby boomer group are rejecting the elderly housing paradigm of their parents and grandparents.   An article in  The New York Times describes innovative senior housing in Florida whose name, Latitude Margaritaville, is based on a popular Jimmy Buffett song.  In describing this over 55 housing development designed to resemble a non-stop beach party, the article quotes a University of Iowa anthropologist who says, “We have no shared collective articulation for what later life is for, what the value of living longer is, except not dying…”

I guess that depends on what your definition of “collective” is. The Judeo-Christian tradition has a very clear understanding. While Latitude Margaritaville sounds like a fun place, ancient Jewish wisdom isn’t keen on separating the generations. Listen to this exchange between Moses and Pharaoh.

(Moses relating God’s message) …thus said the Lord God of the Hebrews, Let my people go, that they may serve me.
(Exodus 9:1)

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Forged in Steel

November 13th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 28 comments

You may have heard of the possibly apocryphal tale of the Detroit manufacturer of buggy whips early in the twentieth century.  Although he heard rumors of a newfangled horseless carriage that some chap called Ford was building down the road, he made no changes to his profitable business.  Needless to say, he was soon out of business.

When steel eventually was discovered in the nineteenth century and began to replace cast iron, a vast part of American and British wealth that lay in the many old-fashioned foundries and iron-casting operations was tossed aside as these now obsolete operations were destroyed and replaced with early forms of steel-making furnaces.  Then Englishman Henry Bessemer invented the Bessemer converter and made possible the economical manufacture of steel, which quickly replaced cast iron as the building material of choice for bridges and other constructions.  All the earlier furnaces were scrapped and replaced with the faster and more efficient system. 

Later, the Bessemer converter itself was replaced with the Siemens Open Hearth Furnace, which in turn was replaced in the middle of the twentieth century with the Electric Arc Furnace.  Innovation, even in the mature steel industry, is not over.  Mini-mills are famously encroaching on larger and less flexible operations many of whom have scrapped their plant and replaced it with several mini-mills.

We all must recognize that change is an inevitable necessity in business.  Regardless of exactly how we serve our fellow humans, we need to wake up every weekday morning asking ourselves, “How has my world changed since yesterday?  What should I be doing differently today?”  In business, we look towards the future.  Tomorrow will be different; embrace it.   

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