Category Archives: Ethics & Values

If You’re Wise You’ll Be Inconsistent

Recently I read Stephen Asma’s book Against Fairness. Intrigued by the title, I hoped to get some ideas for explaining to my seven-year-old why life is not fair. While this need went unsatisfied, it caused me ponder the nature of fairness and how it relates to wisdom.

If You’re Wise You’ll Be Inconsistent

Fairness seems to be part of the American character. But as Asma points out, other cultures, in particular, many in Asia, favor family ties above all. Abandoning nepotism in favor of a stranger is shameful.

But if we dig below the surface, fairness flies in the face of another cherished American societal value: individualism.

The rabbi of my community is admired by all as a wise, humane man. Beset by requests for guidance, he could spend 25 hours a day dispensing advice. While under his tutelage, one day I questioned him about a particular issue in the Jewish dietary laws. His answer astounded me. He told me it depended on several factors:

  1. Who is asking the question? Specifically, where on life’s journey was the person? How extensive were her knowledge and expertise?
  2. To what spiritual level is the person aspiring? Is the person seeking to stretch herself and increase her level of observance?
  3. What day of the week and time of day was it? Was it late on a Friday close to the start of the Sabbath?

There were others but you get the idea.

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This seemed consummately unfair. Essentially, as an aspiring rabbi, I would get a strict answer but someone less knowledgeable would be treated more leniently. The rules should be the rules. Of course, if everyone got the same answer, why do you need to speak to a human? A computer would be much more efficient and fair.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Each person is unique. So any question requires the context of that person’s specific situation in order to come up with the right answer. Similar to doing an act of kindness, insight into a person’s character and circumstances are necessary to find the proper solution to his challenges.

Such is the nature of wisdom. It requires knowledge and experience, but most importantly good judgment.

Inevitably, from the outside, it will appear inconsistent since when two people have the same issue, the solutions will in all likelihood be different.

I suspect you want to be dealt with in the context of your own life challenges, not those of society or other people. Not only is such a desire reasonable, it is the only way to support a realistic path of personal growth.

Would you rather be treated by a societal standard of fairness or as an individual

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How a Collision Boosted My Dad’s Navy Career

In honor of the 4th yartzheit of my father, Gerald Bemel, may he be remembered for blessing, I am sharing a story from his navy days.

Vivid stories of my father’s navy service help me keep his memory alive. One of my favorites is particularly appropriate to the topics of personal development and entrepreneurship.

How a Collision Boosted My Dad’s Navy Career

Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps afforded my father the opportunity to go to college. So in 1954, his degree complete and newly married, off my dad went to his first ship ported in Charleston, South Carolina. Soon thereafter he headed to the Mediterranean Sea on his first cruise.

Growing up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, my father swam, sailed, and lifeguarded his summers away. Comfortable in and on the water, he was at home on the ocean. One day, while off duty, he was lounging on deck when he noticed the ship in imminent danger of running down a buoy.

In those days, France was particular about her buoys (not to mention her gulls, wouldn’t you be?) and knowing this my father sprang into action. Grabbing a couple of sailors they launched one of the ship’s boats intending to remedy the crisis. Motor churning the sea at top speed, boat hook at the ready to move the buoy out of the ship’s course, Ensign Bemel had the situation well in hand.

And then it happened.

Misjudging the distance, dad slammed into the buoy before the boat slowed sufficiently. But the French had little about which to complain. The buoy was undamaged. The boat was not so fortunate. The term my father used was stove in, meaning a gaping hole in its side.

Ignominiously, dad, crew, and disabled boat were rescued. Word was passed. The captain wanted to see Ensign Bemel.

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Standing at attention in the passageway outside the captain’s cabin, me father contemplated his fate. His commanding officer was a mustang, an enlisted sailor who became an officer, in this case for meritorious action during combat operations of World War II. Old salt did not begin to describe his captain. He was harder than 19th century ship’s biscuit, the kind that broke teeth.

The door opened. The Executive Officer ordered my father in, then left, closing the door behind him.

Standing at rigid attention in front of his CO’s deck, my dad presented himself: “Ensign Bemel reporting as ordered, SIR!”

Captain: “Very good Mr. Bemel, have a seat.”

Dad, flummoxed: “Have a seat sir??”

Captain: “Yes Mr. Bemel, there in that chair.”

Tentatively, my father sat down.

Captain: “Now Mr. Bemel, tell me what happened.”

My father recounted the incident. Then he and the Captain discussed how he might handle a similar situation in the future.

About 30 minutes later the Captain told my father he thought that about covered it and to carry on with his duties.

Flabbergasted, my dad could not refrain from asking: “That’s all Captain??”

Captain: “Yes Mr. Bemel, carry on.”

Dad: “But Captain, I stove in a boat, damaged navy property, embarrassed the ship. What is my punishment?”

Captain: “Mr. Bemel, I’ve just spent a considerable sum training you. I need you to put that training to work right away. Besides, you have demonstrated the one thing I cannot teach. Initiative. You saw a problem and you acted. You could have done so more effectively, but you acted. I need that quality in my officers.”

Only You Can Take Action that Will Change Your Life

No one breaks a habit through inaction. No business ever started spontaneously. You might stave in your boat, but you will learn valuable lessons. As important, you will show yourself and others, you have what it takes to succeed.

What keeps you from taking the first step

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How to Rectify an Insult

There once was a man who felt sorry for insulting his friend.  Not knowing how to assuage his guilt, he decided to speak with the local rabbi.

How to Rectify an Insult

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After listening carefully to the man’s story the rabbi told him he would help. But only if the man did exactly what the rabbi told him to do without question.  The man readily agreed.

So the rabbi told the man to go to a housewares store and buy a feather pillow.  The man started to ask why but the rabbi quickly reminded him not to ask questions.  Off the man went to buy the pillow.  Not knowing what the pillow was for, the man bought the most expensive one he could find.

Hurriedly he returned to the rabbi and showed him the pillow.  He pointed out the high thread count, the durability of the ticking, and the density of the goose down and feathers that made up the stuffing.  He even invited the rabbi to rest his head on the pillow to test out it softness and comfort.

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Convinced, the rabbi agreed with his assessment of the supreme quality of the pillow. So he could barely contain his surprise and anger when the rabbi told him to go to the bluffs above the ocean and tear open the pillow.  Protesting the crime of destroying such a fine piece of workmanship, the rabbi again reminded him not to ask questions.

Resigned, the man did as he was told.  He struggled to tear the ticking, having to use a knife to make a hole.  Finally he was able to get a hand on each side of the slit and just as he pulled with all his strength a huge gust of wind blew all of the feathers over the cliff, dispersing them across a vast area.  Satisfied he had done as bidden, he went back to see the rabbi.

“All right,” the man said confronting the rabbi, “I have done as you asked.  My beautiful pillow is just a piece of torn fabric now.  All its feathers have been blown to the four corners of the globe.  And I don’t feel the least bit better about having insulted my friend.”  Calmly, the rabbi replied, “you will, as soon as you collect up every feather.”

You Can Control Only Two Things in Life: What You Say and What You Do.

No matter how young he is, you cannot control another person.  Though you can develop proficiency in altering your thoughts, your brain is too complex and outside stimulus too unpredictable to gain complete mastery over every thought that comes to mind.

Recovery from an ill-considered word or deed can be virtually unattainable, especially in these days of ubiquitous video and social media.  Next time you are tempted to lash out, do you really think the person will benefit?  Or will you have given up yet another piece of your mind to no purpose?

When did exercising restraint worsen a situation? 

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The Impact You Don’t Know You’re Having

My idea of military life prior to joining the Navy was a superior officer gave an order and junior officers and enlisted people obeyed.  While it works this way sometimes, for even the most junior Sailors and Marines, teamwork and collaboration are the norm.  As a chaplain, I can count on one hand the number of times I someone ordered me to do something counter to my recommendations. And I'd have two fingers left over!  One taught me . . .

The Impact You Don’t Know You’re Having

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The Navy and Marine Corps refer to a jail as the brig.  I had been the Brig Chaplain on Okinawa, Japan for about a year when a new commanding officer took over the battalion that ran base facilities.  Although outmoded today, my father, who was a Navy officer in the 1950s, taught me to make a duty call on my commanding officer.  I presented myself at the appointed time and the colonel invited me to sit down for a short chat.

Explaining my major responsibility to him was looking after the staff and prisoners at the brig, I outlined a program to allow personnel to take classes that earned them college credit.  To my surprise, the colonel was dead set against the prisoners participating, even though staving off their boredom would make discipline easier for the guards.  Despite all of my justifications, he would not change his mind.  Resigned to the demise of my program, our meeting ended.

As a sidelight, in the sometimes labyrinthian ways of the military, it turns out the colonel did not have authority over such a program.  Staff and prisoners alike got to take college credit classes, albeit through others’ efforts.

For the next few months, I saw the colonel once a week at his staff meeting.  Never one for idle talk or praise, cordiality marked our relationship.  I always gave him my candid assessment of the matters in my purview but never had to make another recommendation.  When another chaplain took over day-to-day battalion matters, my contact with the colonel ceased.  But my inability to convince him of the obvious benefit of educating incarcerated young men continued to bother me.

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A couple of years later it was time to move on to my next billet.  Customarily, you get what is known as an “end of tour” award, meaning a medal based on your rank and how well you did your job.  The award I received did not surprise me. The presenter did.

At the ceremony, the battalion colonel gave me the most treasured compliment of my Navy career.  In front of all of my colleagues, he commended my work as a chaplain and as a staff officer, unafraid of giving frank recommendations.

Talking about the experience later with my mentor, I learned that the colonel, who was one of the people who had to approve the award, asked to be the presenter.

We Go Through Life Mostly Unaware of How We Affect Other People.

Often we do not realize the influence we have on our family and closest friends.  I would never have guessed about the impact I had on the colonel.  His example of integrity continues to serve me well to this day.  Most importantly, I endeavor to positively touch people’s lives every day while accepting that rarely if ever will I know the fruits of my labor.

When have you had an impact that you did not find out about until long after?

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Why Your Ambition Isn’t Egotistical

July 1 I became a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy.  Despite this being my first real promotion (becoming a lieutenant is automatic unless you really mess up) I asked for an understated ceremony.  It seems improper for a chaplain to make a big deal about rank.  After all, my authority should come from my behavior and what I stand for.

Why Your Ambition Isn’t Egotistical

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Do not get me wrong.  I am not opposed to ambition.  My wife will tell you I am driven to succeed.  And I admire ambitious people, provided their pursuit of power and accomplishment benefits humanity.  Remember Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol?  Ebenezer Scrooge’s miserly accumulation of wealth served no purpose other than self-aggrandizement.  Thankfully in America affluence often leads to philanthropy.

Through my work I find that too often the people most fit to fill high positions are the ones reluctant to strive for them.  Genuine modesty impedes them from considering entering the fray.  If you find yourself in this group, I hope you will take these ideas to heart:

  1. Great people seek power so as to serve others.  Although both had towering ambition, leaders as different as George Washington and Winston Churchill devoted their lives to improving the lot of their countrymen and allies.  By contrast, Benedict Arnold and Josef Stalin, while at one time positioned for greatness, squandered their opportunity through egotism and in Stalin’s case inhumanity.
  2. Great people’s lives rest on a foundation of values.  By the time he was 16, Washington had devoted himself to his 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.  Churchill spent years in the political wilderness because his antipathy to fascism and determination to rearm to fight it militarily if necessary was at odds with contemporary public sentiment.  Neither treason nor mass murder was too abhorrent to Arnold and Stalin, respectively, in their pursuit of power.
  3. Great people relentlessly improve their fitness to lead. Washington’s mastery of his Rules of Civility, along with his self-education as a surveyor, soldier, and leader, qualified him for the lofty positions he sought.  Churchill spent time in combat, built wealth, learned to glean knowledge from other people, and developed his oratorical skills all to prepare him to lead.  While Arnold developed some command ability as a soldier, he was not a student of men or leadership. Stalin had great political skill but in the end he substituted brutality for personal development.
  4. Great people at heart are humble. Washington shunned a perpetual presidency for the good of a young America.  Churchill, during the days of his “back fog,” questioned his ability.  Both Arnold and Stalin thought the world owed them recognition and power.
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I hope you will seek ever-greater challenges: professionally, personally, and spiritually.  The world can never have too many people dedicated to serving their fellow human beings.  If you question your fitness for a more prominent position, greater wealth, or increased influence you are on the right track.  The answer lies in honing your ability, clarifying your values, and committing to use these gifts to serve others.

How do you feel about ambition as a character trait?

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