Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Surprise Ending

"And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”


                                                      The Surprise Ending

Gordon Smith turned his head and coughed as the doctor instructed him. He had never been comfortable with the process of getting naked with another man, even when that man was his doctor, but over the years he had developed a successful manner of distracting himself during these exams, a simple exercise in which he imagined himself at the beach, in the sun, away from the stresses of his busy workday.  As he coughed again, he felt the sun's warmth upon his face, felt the hot sand between his toes, heard the soft lap of the waves as they washed up on the beach.

A few weeks later, Gordon sat in the same doctor's office, this time with his wife by his side. He had always discouraged his wife's attendance at his appointments, even after the kids had left the nest and she had more time available, more time to spend with him. But she insisted this time, having heard some of the conversation and seen his face when the office had called to schedule the appointment, and explain the reason behind its necessity.  Blood test anomalies. 

As Gordon sat and waited, his wife clutching his hand in her lap, he allowed himself to once more drift off to the beach, his safe place.  But this time, he was less successful in blotting out his anxiety.  It annoyed him that lately he had found himself revisiting in his mind, the highlights of his life.  He had always thought himself different from most men, special, and he felt that this kind of reminiscing was the "normal" reaction to such news as he had received.  

Still, today, he found himself oddly tranquil as he ticked off the business accomplishments of his life.  The early days when he was just learning the ways of the financial world.  His mentor, who would later become his partner, schooled him well.  As he grew his circle of associates, the opportunities increased exponentially.  No deal was out of reach, no shot for financial success too long.  Whether he required a loan, a zoning change, or an inside track, he had a contact which would provide the funding or remove the obstacle.  While he may not have been available for his children's activities, he provided more than enough money for them to attend good schools, and for his wife to remain at home to raise them herself.

Gordon was a success, everyone said so.  Even his parish priest seemed to seek out his company; of course, his monetary donations didn't hurt, even if Gordon didn't attend mass as often as his wife desired.  Gordon glanced at his wife, as she sat with a worried look on her face.  He wanted to reassure her that everything would be OK, that men like him, with his resources, his contacts, were immune to the vagaries of life that doomed lesser men to unforeseen events.  He has always made his own way, always took on any battle and emerged victorious, and this one would be no different. Gordon had always told her just that, hadn't he always prevailed?  He wondered why she should even be worried at all, and instead of comforting her, he withdrew his hand from her grasp.

Six months later, Gordon Smith pulled himself up against his pillow, and pushed the lift button on his hospital bed.  His family was to visit today, wife, son, daughter.  They all had stopped by individually in the last few weeks, his wife almost daily, the kids when they could find the time, but this would be the first time all three came at once.  Their visits, though pleasant, had often reminded him of his illness, more than reminding him of their love for him.  He despised, no, that was too strong of a word, he preferred not to see the sadness in their eyes, didn't want to acknowledge that he was, in fact, dying. Denial was a strong feeling, and one which Gordon had mastered many years ago when the slight prickling of his conscience would try to distract him, try to remind him of what was really important.

It was if, were they not to visit, he could pretend that this time in the hospital was just the result of a simple procedure, a temporary blip in the path of his life, a minor stop in his continuous and successful rise to national importance and substantial wealth.  When his now ex-business partner stopped by to express his condolences and support, Gordon remembered the day when he had outmaneuvered his partner, had learned the tricks of the trade even better than this man who had first been his teacher, wresting control of their company so that he was out, leaving Gordon in control.  As the man left, Gordon couldn't help but wonder if there was more to the visit than discussed.  Gordon couldn't shake the feeling that his former partner might have been seeking reinstatement, perhaps a public expression of support or a designation of succession.  As if Gordon would consider such a thing just because he was sick.

When the day came that Gordon passed from this world, it was not unlike any of the previous 30 days.  Gordon awoke, just a bit more tired than yesterday, a pattern that had started recently.  He barely acknowledged the hospital staff person who delivered his morning meal, just as he had barely interacted with this young woman during most of the transactions when she would deliver his meals.  In the background, the TV glowed with the same business information that was always displayed, numbers scrolling across the bottom, experts bemoaning the latest government regulation which placed undo obstacles on wealth accumulation, or extolling the virtues of the most recent corporate merger announcement, another mega company being born to monopolize another industry.  Even his wife's visit seemed routine.  He was no longer able to read the unspoken messages in her eyes, no longer able to accept a love that she gave unconditionally, despite the lack of such a love being returned to her.

It was the very nature of this routine, however, that startled Gordon when he was suddenly no longer in his hospital bed, no longer surrounded by the anti-septic smell of the room and the soft glow of Business Today on the TV.  Instead, he was sitting across the desk from a middle aged man who was engrossed in a folder of papers which he had in front of him.  While Gordon was uncertain of the circumstance, he was quite certain that he was on the side of the desk to which he was unfamiliar, the subordinate side.  When a few more moments passed without recognition for his presence, Gordon cleared his throat in just the way which he had always done when he wanted someone of lower status to pay attention to him.

"Ah yes, Mr Smith.  I was just reviewing your file.  Do you know where you are?"

Gordon snickered.  "Not in the hospital", he said.  Gordon had always found that should he find himself in a situation in which he was unsure, a scornful declaration of what he knew was the best response.  

"Yes, you are quite right.  You are no longer in the hospital.  Would it surprise you that you are no longer on Earth?  Or to put it more bluntly, that you are no longer alive"?

Not one to show any sign that he could somehow be caught off guard or not be in control of any situation, Gordon sat up in his chair as straight as he could and with a half smile that said, there is nothing that you could know that I didn't already guess, he said "Not surprised at all.  It is rather evident".

The man behind the desk did not flinch however.  He was used to this kind of response, this kind of man, unfortunately so because that is the only type that he had faced, would face, for quite a long, long time.

"Mr Smith, your life has been reviewed.  I have here a synopsis of your accomplishments, your business acumen, your wealth, the recognition you have received by men like your self".  The man behind the desk looked up from the folder, and smiled.  It was a smile that Gordon was familiar with, a smile that he shared often with other men of business, a knowing smile, a smile that disarms those less knowing in the ways of men who eviscerate, with a smile.  And, although he hadn't admitted it to himself, Gordon relaxed for the fist time since he had "arrived" in this office.  He had been a bit on edge, had felt a slight twinge from that part of his mind that he had long since disabled.  But now he felt at home, with a kindred spirit.

"Gordon Smith, you have led a successful life, full of monetary gains, robust deals which brought fame and recognition, and relationships designed to create even more wealth.  Congratulations, you are a wonderful example of a man who understands that earthly possessions, no matter how they are acquired, is the goal of men who do not seek anything beyond material success.  You have earned a unique place in eternity."

Gordon rose from his chair.  The wisdom of the path of his life, his unrelenting goal of more wealth and power was now confirmed.  He felt a growing sensation in his mind, a tingling, pleasing sensation unlike anything he had ever experienced.  As he reached out his hand to accept congratulations from the man behind the desk, the sensation in his mind burst from within him.  Total consciousness, as Bill Murray's character in Caddyshack claims he will have upon his death in lieu of a tip from the Dalai Lama after 18 holes of golf.  

Sadly though for Gordon, while total consciousness was the reward he earned, its details were not the reward he expected.  For in that moment, that moment that would play over and over again for eternity. Gordon realized that his wife's love for him was never appreciated, his children had always longed for his time, not his money, his business associates only respected him as much as they could use him for their own gain, and, in the end, his former partner and mentor had visited, not too garner future favor, but to express his friendship despite Gordon's actions towards him, for he had had his own burst of conscious in the years since their partnership.

The man behind the desk released Gordon's hand, and pushed the small, red button on his desk.  Two men of similar demeanor emerged from a nearby door, and escorted Gordon into a void that could not discerned.


Gordon was surprised by the judgement he received at death, yet should he be?  It's not like he hadn't heard the warning message from his childhood as a Roman Catholic when the dangers of excess wealth had emanated from the pulpit of various priests, or even from his own dear wife and children who often reminded him that money was nice, as were the things that financial success could procure, but that without family and friends, it was all false. And that when someone put wealth accumulation above humanity, well, that lead far too easily to a life lived in antithesis of the message of Jesus.

I have had many discussions with family, friends, and work acquaintances, concerning the percentage of people who believe they will "go to heaven", or the equivalent of whatever belief system to which they proscribe. I tend to think that at least 95% of people believe they will attain a heavenly reward, while, strangely, many aren't as confident about other people, generally condemning a host of "types" of people to eternal damnation, whether those people hold different religious, political, sexual preference, or even national affinity. It reminds me of the staunch GOP politicians who are 100% sure of their recent victory in the 2020 election, and exhibit no doubt that election integrity is not an issue in their state, yet aren't quite so confident in those other states where the Democratic candidate was victorious.

I have a few, what may be called alarming, theories about who will spend eternity with God, or more precisely, who may not share eternity with Her.  

The first is that all those born of a specific time frame, say all those born between 1945 and 1965, will be judged as a unit.  Each life, as they end, will generate a positive and negative score, that score being the net accumulation of good deeds and bad deeds. Oddly, the designation of what is good and bad, is relative to the time.  For instance, an act that was acceptable to the majority of people during the 19th century, yet became unacceptable during the 2nd half of the 20th century, would be valued appropriately, when it occurred, not in retrospect based on a shift in the morality of a new age.  This theory might be labelled as the all-for-one-one-for-all theory of Judgement Day.  The unfortunate aspect of it is that those who behave in a truly horrible way can be saved by the good works of their contemporaries.  It allows for those who behave abominably to find eternal reward because, as it turns out, they are the exception that proves the rule, that most people are good and so that cumulative goodness saves everyone.  This theory also gives reasons for goodness to those who might wonder why bother, there is so much evil in the world, what can a few good works by me accomplish in the face of such badness.  Well, it is precisely those good deeds that counter the badness, making it the duty of those who understand the difference of good and bad, to be good.

The second is similar to the first, in that it results in a group Judgement Day, except this one is broken down by country and culture.  After all, to be judged under the same standards when born in the United States as those born in South Sudan just doesn't seem fair.  I am not sure how God is going to separate us within those varying cultures and countries, but I imagine it will be just, as I assume that fairness is a trait of the Creator.  I do expect however, that the standards will be a bit higher for some cultures/countries.  That the bar will be raised for those who were blessed with advantages at birth that others did not receive.  Sort of like a sports team that has 4 or 5 superstars will be expected to win the championship, or at least come close, while a team with much less talent might be deemed successful just by making the playoffs. Unfortunately, this theory places a larger share of burden on those who won the "birth lottery", specifically most of us who reside in the developed world, especially us Americans.  Should this be the case, all those who routinely espouse selfish philosophies, America first, party over country, take care of No 1, might be surprised when reminded that how we treat the least among us could be the bar against how we are measured. 

Speaking of a bar, my third theory is reflected in The Surprise Ending.  The bar, in this case, is wealth. Those who die with huge amounts of money and possessions are automatically rejected, condemned to hell as Gordon Smith seems to have been.  Again, this amount would have to be relevant to the times.  Perhaps as simple as, anyone with an amount of wealth that is 1000 times more than the poorest of the time, is... well you get the idea.  I like this theory a bit more than the other two.  In those two, there is some kind of good vs bad deed evaluation,  The "too much money" theory that Gordon fell victim too, merely follows the advice that Jesus gave when asked about riches.  It's actually simpler too, if you think about it.  Sure, work hard to attain financial comfort, but never lose sight that the point of life is to reflect the love of the Creator who has demonstrated such love through the gift of life.  Or more to the point, that money and power are false idols. Kind of like the Clint Eastwood character in Pale Rider, when the rich villain offers him a church and big collections on Sunday if he would move to town and stop defending the farmers he wants to drive from their land.  Clint's response, a version of Matthew 6:24, reminds the man that one cannot serve mammon and God, mammon being money, so the offer just won't work out. Can you imagine the sheer volume of people who will find themselves on the wrong end of this yardstick?  But what about those who inherit a lot of money, you might ask? I would expect that someone with the advantage of superior resources could figure out a way to disperse that money.  Still, I can imagine that some consideration might be given to those who use their wealth to improve the lives of others.  What concerns me with this caveat, is that many of those who accumulate large sums of money do so in nefarious ways, by harming or taking advantage of many others.  Do they then get a pass when they use their ill-gotten gains to buy their way back to heaven?  I would prefer that we evaluate the super rich on how they got that way, not what they did afterwards.  And, since this is my theory, I believe God does as well, although being far more merciful than I, perhaps the Creator allows more wiggle room than I do.

So there you have it, a few simple theories about the next step after death.  Thoughts on who might be rewarded, who might not.  And, if I may be so bold, a bit of a warning to those of us who spend far too much time cheating and lying and fighting to gain more money to make their heaven on earth, not realizing that all that effort produces rewards that are not only fleeting, but could very well condemn you to a far longer time of despair and agony. 

Oh yes, one more thing.  Did you catch the attitude of the man behind the desk in the story?  He seemed quite saddened, perhaps even depressed by the fact that assisting in the judgement of men like Gordon Smith had long been his only occupation, and would forever be so.  You see, the man behind the desk was not sent to hell as Gordon was.  He had been condemned to an even worse fate, that of informing men and women innumerable who had behaved exactly as he had in his life.  His hell was to see a reflection of his own face across the desk each and every time he revealed their fate.


Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Selfishness and Patriotism

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

I assume that most of my readers will recognize this quote from JFK's inaugural address in 1961. (Yes, you may find some interesting tidbits on the true origin of this quote, speculation that JFK may have heard it from his headmaster in school or that it may have been partially conceived by JFK's speech writer at the time, but I will look past those stories for this post, as it is the point of the quote that I choose to discuss).

It may be hard to imagine the political and social environment of the 1960's when JFK spoke those words, but it is not hard to imagine his meaning.  If you wish to read his entire speech, I have provided a link below and I encourage you to do so. His words encourage cooperation among the nations of the world, acknowledge the vital role that the United Nations could play in that arena, admonish those nations and people who use tyranny rather than freedom to govern, and challenge each citizen of America to participate in the improvement of our country.  


As a child of the 50's, part of the baby boomer generation, someone who can distinctly remember the assassination of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, not to mention the 58,000 plus Americans who died in Vietnam, I am acutely aware of the sacrifices that have been made by some of my fellow citizens since those words were spoken.  Which makes it all the more puzzling why selfishness seems to have now become a patriotic trait of many people today.

Upwards of 800,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, yet the simple act of wearing a mask is too much to do for a significant percentage of our population. Every day they scoff at the notion that they should do something for someone else, that they should participate in stemming the spread of this deadly disease for their country. And getting a vaccine, which is free and effective, is far too much for this selfish crowd who prefer to believe internet podcasters and political pundits who value ratings above lives rather than the scientific community that, chances are, have helped develop some cancer or heart disease or breathing difficulty treatment, that has saved their lives or those of their loved ones.

We can't just put our nation, or our state, or our community, or our selves, first, at least not always and without exception.  If your neighbor's house is on fire, do you ignore it, not care if the fire burns out of control, and worry about it only when the fire spreads to your home, or do you CARE about them, do what you can to make sure the fire department has been called, perhaps even do what you can to reduce the flames? Do you act selfishly or with an understanding that we improve and prosper as a group?

Do you do unto others as you want done to you, or do what you want because you are "free"?

There seems to be a lot of talk lately about reclaiming our country from those who seek to stray from our Christian values. Seems to me that doing what is necessary for those in your family and community who are sick might be a christian act, which makes me think that wearing a mask and getting vaccinated might qualify as such an act.  

A little bit of sacrifice such as this pales in comparison to those who gave their lives willingly, to fight for our common beliefs, or via an assassin's bullet.  Are those unwilling to do what is needed to help America, guilty of murder when their words or actions result in even more people needlessly dying from Covid?  Perhaps that sounds over the top, but is it any less damning than someone who stands idly by while someone is strangled in front of them?  

At least someone who freezes when confronted by an act of violence, and is unable to act to save a life, has the excuse that they were afraid. In comparison, someone who refuses to wear a mask or get a vaccine because it is a violation of their freedom, could be called selfish, and a coward.

I don't place all the blame for the apparent belief that being selfish is patriotic on the  former president. While he certainly emboldened many to act selfishly through his example, someone who refused to remove himself from his business interests while holding the highest office of public servant in America, someone who willingly has inspired doubt in our election process just because he is a poor loser, the millions of Americans who continue to sit at his feet wouldn't do so if they had a stronger sense of patriotism, and a weaker belief in doing whatever I want to do.

I truly hope it is not too late for us to take America back to a time when its citizens were willing to ask what they could do for our country and then strong enough to listen to the answer through a filter of cooperation rather than selfishness. I guess only time will tell.  



Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Old Ship, New Library, Non-famous Hero

I binge read the November edition of the Smithsonian earlier this week. Found the following three articles extremely interesting.

The first was about a 500 plus year old warship that was recently found off the coast of Sweden.  The ship in question, called the Grubshunden, is believed to have been the flagship of King Hans who reigned over Denmark and Norway from 1481-1513.  Apparently, at the time of King Hans' rule, Sweden had broken away from an agreement called the Kulmar Union which had been in force for over 100 years. Hans was attempting to bring Sweden back into the fold.  Towards this end, he had commissioned the Grubshunden. Unfortunately, it is believed that a freak accident befell the great ship (the King was onshore at the time), then lay off the coast of Sweden from 1495 until 1971, when it was discovered by accident.  Even then however, the significance of the find remained unknown for another 30 years, when one of the divers who originally spied the wreck's protruding timbers, alerted local archaeologists.

The truly amazing part is that this particular ship was of a design totally unexpected.  In northern Europe at the time, boats were built by riveting overlapping planks to make a waterproof shell as compared to those made in southern Europe in which hull planks were placed edge to edge.  This "carvel" design enabled boats made in southern Europe to put more and heavier guns on their ships.  

So, not only is this the only ship of its size found intact, the Grubshunden has a "carvel" design.  In other words, it is the only example of the boat the type of boat used to make all the great "discovery" trips of the age.  This find also indicates the extent of communication between shipwrights of the time, and the global nature of boat building.

The second article was about a sea change taking place in some of our nation's library systems. The particular focus of the article was the system in Memphis, Tennessee.  Imagine going to a library to cut a music video, or make a short movie, or create a podcast.  Or start and run your own business.  The main thrust is to make the library more of a community center for everyone to gather, build contacts, improve their lives, and read a book, if so inclined.  Additionally, an outreach program has also been developed which brings the benefits of the library into the community to people who can't get to the physical building.  

After reading this article, learning about the many people who contribute as well as receive, it reminds me how "soft" infrastructure, a concept that seems completely foreign to the current version of the GOP, reaps a much better return on the dollar.  We sign off on the $750 billion dollar Department of Defense tab with barely a blink of an eye, but fight and scream about temporary deficits that might occur if we spend even one thousandth of one percent of that amount on improving communities and inspiring creativity in our children.

The third article was about Aristedes de Sousa Mendes.  This gentlemen was the consul general from Portugal stationed at the Portuguese embassy in Bourdeaux, France at the time of the German invasion during WW2.  The main point of the story is that Sousa Mendes issued visas to thousands of fleeing refugees, the vast majority of those visas being in contradiction to Portugal's dictator at the time, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.  Ostensibly, Portugal was neutral in WW2, but Salazar knew that his future depended on who came out on top, so this neutrality flowed from one side to the other as the war raged.  At this particular time in history, Salazar was reluctant to appear to help those fleeing Hitler's armies, so Sousa Mendes' actions did not please him.

Should you do some library research on this topic, you will read, unfortunately, that Sousa Mendes did not emerge from the conflict as a hero.  On the contrary, he was stripped of his position and his pension by Salazar, and spent much of his later years in poverty.  Although those he rescued by issuing those visas in Bordeaux, and two other nearby towns, were certainly grateful, there was little to connect all those people to know of the existence of so many like themselves.  It is only recently, through the work of some of the descendants of those who were saved by Sousa Mendes, that the true scope of his efforts have been understood.  

Such an inspiring story, both for its actual accomplishment in that literally tens of thousands of people alive today, owe their existence to his actions, either directly in indirectly through progeny, and the sometime hard to accept realization that doing great deeds does not guarantee great fame, or even any kind of public acknowledgement.  The actions themselves and the knowledge of the extent of the good that has been done may be the only "reward" one gains, yet still, everyday, unheralded heroes act in this manner, without fanfare or fame.  Thank goodness for that!