Thursday, November 29, 2007

Values and Personality: Part II

An examination of the effects emotions and personality on political beliefs, continued from Part I:

Part II: Non-Violence

The transformation from a hawkish conservative to a pacifist opposed to the death penalty didn't begin with careful reasoning, but with subtle experience. First, I fell in love. I married the most amazing woman. Perhaps it is an accident of natural selection that young males are eager to kill or die for their nation or a cause, but having a wife and now a child on the way have tempered any inclination toward killing. The list of things I would be willing to kill or die for rapidly began to empty. The only thing I would be willing kill for is to save her from danger. The thought that I had once been willing to go to war and kill another woman's husband filled me with remorse. I find now as a husband and father that violence and cruelty depicted in films which had never bothered me before often make me sick to my stomach.

Another thing that happened was that I became a doctor. Suddenly people dying and suffering, which had before been an abstraction, became something I saw frequently and intimately. Before I had rather harshly realistic opinion that everyone dies. Perhaps I have a “thin skin,” but after caring for so many as they die I can no longer have such a cavalier attitude toward the death of a human being. No matter how painful or peaceful, the end of a human life strike me as an immense tragedy. We all still die and suffer, but I can never speak of the death of another human lightly. Even more so willfully killing a person, even a vile person or someone who is a threat, became horrible to my mind.

Medicine also altered my concept of “deserving.” Much of the illness I care for in my patients is self-inflicted through unhealthy decisions made in the past. The conservative idea that bad acts should get what they deserve, doesn't work in medicine. My oath as a physician binds me to care for the suffering and ill regardless of patients “bringing it on themselves” or not. It is my job to prevent (as much as possible) people from getting “what they deserve” from years of unhealthy habits. I should advocate for health, but realizing unhealthiness exists it is my job to forgive and restore. Perhaps it is a stretch, but my job in human restoration after bad deeds made me wonder about humans metering out the justice of God by putting evil people to death. My own experience in my family of evil and redemption again figured in my perspective. Also in medicine I have cared for many prisoners, including several who I know killed others ruthlessly. Did I have the right to tell them they didn't deserve lifesaving care because they were bad? No. They were in chains and no longer a threat to anyone. Why should I want them killed?

The ancient rule of medicine is “First, do no harm.” This beneficent rule has restrained physicians for centuries. We are not any better than any human beings, but something as simple as this has given us perhaps the greatest respect among professions. I liked this principle. It made sense and even misanthropic doctors act well when they are reminded of this oath. I sought such a simple principle for my political beliefs. The Consistent-Life Movement is above all things simple: Kill no human. It fit with my pro-life upbringing. It fit with my Christian beliefs. While the holy scriptures don't expressly prohibit capital punishment or war, the commandment to love others with the sacrificial love of Christ certainly makes consistent non-violence seem consistent with my belief.

During this internal transformation of my values, the external world seemed to be moving to confirm my new views. The war I had initially supported had become long, bitter, and pointless. Now our brave soldiers are dying and killing to prevent a cataclysm that our invasion set in motion. Certainly this preemptive war was started with the best of intentions: a fight for security and freedom. This war and my initial support of it leaves a sad stain on my consciousness. How easily I supported sending our defenders to kill and be killed! I now deeply believe that war should always be a last resort and only in self-defense.

My conservative friends and family think me a bit of an embarrassment for becoming a vocal pacifist, and liberal pacifists find my antiabortion convictions to be offensive, but I must admit being consistently pro-life is a relief. I am by no means a perfect person or a perfect Christian, but to my mind this is the most true and honest way to let the mind of Christ effect my politics. “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” -Romans 12:18 And so my mind is at peace with this. With a personality that impulsively spills my thoughts out to everyone (as evidenced by this blog) it is this piece of my mind that I speak.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Values and Personality: Part I

With all the soapbox speeches on this blog, perhaps I would do well to examine the personal conflicts and influences that produced these convictions. While many essays here are commentary, this site is personal and the essays are personal thoughts.

Political and ethical beliefs are not arrived at in a vacuum with only logical extrapolations from fundamental principles. They arise organically within a mind after mixing with the milieu of experience, emotions, and personality. As Chris often points out the logical arguments for my stances often leave much to be desired. While I must work on more thoughtful reasoning, “one cannot help but believe, that which seems true.” Thus I will try to provide an examination of how these values came to seem true in my mind:

Part I: Pro-Life

I was raised in the Pro-life (anti-abortion) Movement. My mother was a passionate pro-life activist. She had two abortions, before having us, and she had initially scheduled me to be terminated as well. Seeing the wrongness of what had been done, she poured her energy into preventing further killing of innocent fetuses. As long as I can remember there were bumper stickers on the car and we carried signs at rallies. We were taught that if enough people got involved America would come to it's senses and stop the killing. To a child there was an overwhelming sense of optimism and hopefulness in the face of terrible wrong.

The impact of abortion within my family deepened the belief in the rightness of being pro-life, but it also prevented any sense of enmity in my conviction. How could I despise those who have abortions, when my own mother, who raised me to be pro-life and saved me from being aborted, had once done this? I believe this perspective nourished my sense of empathy, and led me to a much more nuanced view of evil. Conservatives often think in terms of good guys and bad guys. Even as a young person I couldn't fully accept such as simplistic explanation.

Being Pro-life and Christian my parents raised me Republican and Conservative. I believe due to this political affiliation I was initially in favor of the death penalty and hawkish about war. I even considered applying for a military academy. While I certainly had a young male bravado, I was never eager for violence, but I was taught it was a necessity for responding to evil in the world. While I couldn't quite accept the conservative concept of bad guys versus the rest of us, I did accept that violence kept order and prevented worse evils. Killing our fellow humans (guilty humans -since I was pro-life) was a necessary evil in this world. I even supported Bush's invasion of Iraq as recently as 2003, but by that time my confidence in the acceptability of violence was already waning.

(for more on becoming a pacifist see Part II)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Buy Nothing Day!

Happy Buy Nothing Day! In response to the mass buying frenzy that happens starting today (an unfortunate manipulation of the traditional thankfulness and giving associated with these holidays) today is declared "Buy Nothing Day" (a holiday that Congress would never dare officialize). So today we remember our humanity and fight the ways that we are defined as and depended on by society to be "consumers." We also reflect on how our own greed and materialism makes us complicit in this sad spectacle.

Perhaps with enough reflection we can realize that the gift of Christ on Christmas would be less honored by unrestrained buying of things that people don't need, but by giving to those we love by serving those whose need is deepest.

PS: Perhaps I should clarify the preachy tone of this blog, by pointing out I am not some monk or Daniel in Babylon who is not soiled by such things. My own guilt in this love of things makes me need a day like this more than anyone.

Monday, November 19, 2007

When Dreams Become Responsibilities

The last few weeks I've been having the same dream: I am working in the Emergency Room surrounded by patients I can't cure with problems I can't even understand. In the bizarre logic of dreams, my patients seem both real and somehow blurry enough that their illnesses never make sense. These dreams last all night. I awaken, realize I have been dreaming, but cannot shake off the anxieties of the dream; “What would I do if that really happened at the hospital?” (Unable to realize that dreams present problems to which there are no solutions.) I fall back into fitful sleep. My wife says I talk frantically in my sleep. These dreams only come on nights before my shifts at the hospital.

It is interesting that I once would have said it is my “dream” to be a doctor. Although I love my job, my former dreamy idealism has been replaced with heavy duty. Before in residency, I was in a group of many training doctors and was never the one finally responsible for the care I gave. Now as I work 24 hour shifts in this rural Emergency Room, I alone am responsible for the life and safety of every person who enters the doors.

Fortunately in my waking work, even my patients with complex problems eventually make sense to me, and I believe the care I provide really is quite good. People I know occasionally bemoan not reaching ambitious goals they set for themselves. My daydreams are the opposite: I think how nice it might have been if I hadn't passed my medical school entrance exams. I could work a regular job without weary nights, death, suffering, and weighty responsibility. My brother recently left nursing school. He told me, “I like working with people, but if I give the wrong medicine someone might die. I don't think I want a job like that.” A few years ago I would have tried to talk him out of this. Not now.

My wife reminds me that I had similar dreams during my first year of residency. I grew out of them, as I became more confident in my new role. Hopefully I will also grow stronger under the burden of this dream I have chosen for myself—strong enough to carry it's weight with grace and patience.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Is Violence Effective?

This post originally started as a response to this post on Turn the Clock Forward.

A book a few years back called “Freakonomics” claimed that legalized abortion in America is responsible for decreasing the crime rate. (We aborted future criminals.) Since then much pro-life debate has focused on discrediting this argument. Similarly and more recently in the news the administration has been claiming it needs the ability to torture and hold people indefinitely without charges if it might save American lives. Pacifists and civil libertarians seem only able to counter with the claim that this behavior might be harmful in the long run because it hurts our image in the world. People of conscience seem bound to a debate that judges right and wrong based on utility.

I think we should be careful not to focus our pleas to stop violence on outcomes. Do I believe the argument that abortion lowers crime? While I don't want it to be true, it could be! Could torture prevent a terrorist attack? Quite possibly? Even if certain types of killing and violence does make the US people safer we still must stand against it. We should be committed to non-violence because it is right, even if it isn't always safe.

Even if preemptive wars and bombing civilians saved lives, even if capital punishment prevents crime, even if euthanizing the severely disabled does ease burdens on society, even if racial profiling gets drugs off the streets, even if embryonic stem cells do cure diseases, even if torture prevents terrorist bombings, even if aborting poor babies prevents crimes --these things are inherently wrong; wrong even if done for all the right reasons. Violence is an excellent way of enforcing peace and stability. Violence works even when it is wrong.

Our job (a difficult one) is to show people a better way. Forgiveness and love are better than violence, but people have to seek peace because it is right not because it is effective. (We Americans have a bad habit of mistaking efficiency for rightness.) Some hopeful idealist point out that if everyone practiced non-violence the world would be perfectly and effectively safe. While this is true in theory, there has never been a fully non-violent society this side of heaven, and in this world non-violent people often end up nailed to crosses.

Peaceableness wins the hearts and minds of people not by proving better outcomes, but by living out a truth that people will want to follow despite any danger.