2: Goodness and Power
April 6, 2017
In the spring of 2012, just as I was meeting and getting to know your mother, my life was a mess, even though it didn't appear that way to almost everyone, even me. But a few people did realize I was struggling, and that literally changed the trajectory of my life. It might have even saved it, at least from misery and loneliness.
In the spring of 2012, I was making poor choices, and didn’t know It. Luckily, there were a few people who noticed and made a few acts of gracious love that brought me back to the path of goodness. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.
The path to goodness is an important one, a righteous one - a dharma. But it is also a winding one, with many distractions and diversions. It is not well marked or mapped. It requires focus, effort, and sacrifice. It is an important path (and I’d argue a better one) but not an easy one to walk.
And I, your father, like my father before me, and his father before he. And my mother and grandparents, and their grandparents. And your mother and grandparents, your uncles and aunts, and my Mamas, Masis, and their Mamas, Masis, all of us before you - we have all tried walked that path before. In our family, that is what we do.
And that's why I wanted to write these letters to you. I am trying to understand how to choose the path of goodness clearly and simply so that I can walk that path, even when it is exceptionally difficult. The best way for you to learn to choose goodness, I believe, is seeing me choose goodness consistently.
In the spring of 2012, the season just before I started dating your mother, I was living in Detroit with your Aunt Jenny. We lived in a building called the New Amsterdam - apparently it was an old penny factory - at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Amsterdam, at the south end of the New Center neighborhood. We moved there because your Uncle Jeff and Aunt Laura lived there, which turned out to be a very important decision, for reasons I wasn't aware of at the time.
It was a neighborhood that was representative of the transformation of the City. Detroit was simmering with new people and ideas. I and the City were changing together, which I think is why I've had a love affair with Detroit since I had moved there about 18 months earlier.
During that part of my life, I was in a fog. Perhaps not a full-blown crisis but definitely a fog. I was not living a blind life, but I wasn’t seeing or thinking clearly.
In the spring of 2012 I was lonely, I worked too much, and spent too much money at the bar. I was studying to take the GMAT for admission into Business School, which I thought would get me out of the life I was living. At the time, I thought I needed something new and bigger in my life. Luckily your Uncle Jeff and Aunt Laura knew better. I didn't need anything new and fancy, but that I needed to get back to basics.
That spring, your Uncle Jeff and Aunt Laura had me your Aunt Jenny and Uncle Mike over for dinner and a bible study. Perhaps not obviously, at the time I wasn't practicing any religion, let alone Christianity, but I always enjoyed learning from the wisdom of any philosophy or theology, and I still do. Besides that, I got to spend time with all of them. And it was easy enough to walk down the hall to their apartment.
And that's what my life consisted of: working too much, drinking, studying for the GMAT, (unsuccessfully) chasing girls at bars in Detroit, and hanging out with your Uncle Jeff, Aunt Laura, Aunt Jenny, and Uncle Mike - sometimes for dinner and Bible study.
That May, I took the GMAT and when I pushed the submit button at the end of the test, I knew I had bombed it (in retrospect, I had done good enough, but scored about 50 points lower than I was achieving on practice tests). That night, I had pre-planned a bar night with friends. I was super stressed and upset, so I obviously drank too much, even more than normal. And to make a longer story short, a girl I had just stopped dating was there.
As difficult as it is to admit, especially to you as my son, I woke up in her apartment (and we were not studying the Bible, so to speak). Having a night like that is something I thought I'd never do. Something I never wanted to do.
It was unfair to the woman I had dated because it was rekindling a relationship that I knew I wasn't interested in long-term, even though she was a kind, interesting, person. I wanted a long-term relationship. I wanted a girlfriend that would be my wife someday. I didn’t want to be in a casual relationship, physical or not. The night I had was not reflective of the man I wanted to be.
That next morning in the middle of May was my low point. In that moment I didn't know exactly what path I was walking on or why, but it certainly wasn't goodness.
I was lucky though, a few weeks later, at one of those dinners around your Uncle Jeff and Aunt Laura's table, we skipped the bible study and just talked. They made me talk about how I was doing. And for the first time, I was honest with myself and with them.
All I remember is weeping uncontrollably, as I realized for the first time how lonely, sad, and depressed, I was. That day was a turning point in my life. That was the day, I was ready to start choosing goodness again, and realized that I had a lot of help - God, your Dada and Dadi, and people like your Uncle Jeff, Aunt Laura, Aunt Jenny, and Uncle Mike who by sitting around that table brought be back from the lowest point in my life.
The reason I'm telling you this is not to draw attention to my past to make me seem more relatable to you in my bachelor days, to try to be a “cool dad”, to have a self-indulgent catharsis, or to make you feel sorry for me. It's to contrast what happened before that day to everything that happened after.
After that day, your Uncle Jeff gave me the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality - one of the most important gifts I've ever received - which helped me start dealing with my anxiety instead of ignoring it and rediscover my belief in God. I stopped chasing girls and focused on developing a deep friendship and eventually a deep love and romance with your mother.
As you know, your mother and I eventually married. To this day, I trace the chain of events that led to our marriage back to, that one dinner, in our apartment building in anew Center, around your Uncle Jeff and Aunt Laura’s table.
So many good things happened after that dinner when your Uncle Jeff, Aunt Laura, Aunt Jenny, and Uncle Mike pulled me from the brink.
Your mother and I started dating, and eventually married. I graduated from my Master's program and had the courage to walk away from a lucrative job with a lot of prestige. I started to improve my relationship with my family, especially your Dada and Dadi. Your mother and I adopted your big brother Riley, and moved into the first home you would ever know. I gained a new family of Pauls, Platers, Bazils, and Boczars. I ran a half marathon and started reading and writing again. I started to stop taking friends for granted and obsessing over work and career.
And of course, one of the greatest things that happened was you. Right now, as I write this, we are on a plane from France with your grandparents, Your Aunt Lyss, Your Great Aunt and Uncle Stephen and Mylene, and Uncle Oliver. Your mom is pregnant with you and sleeping in the seat next to me, on our way to your Aunt Ellie's wedding in England. Your Uncle Toph has just moved to Japan to teach English, which is where he is. Your Dadi is at home in Rochester, sleeping, and your Dada is watching over you from the heavens.
And I'm sitting here writing and all I can think to say is how it's perhaps the greatest gift in life for your Mom and me is to love you. To create you. To raise you. To be your parents So many good things have happened and there are so many left to come.
When I look back on my twenties (yes, your Papa is almost 30 as I'm writing this) I think about it as the period of my life that God used to prepare me for starting a family. I've made so many mistakes along the way - and don't you worry, I'll make plenty more once you get here in November - but I've learned so much too, and I finally feel ready to build a life and family with your mother.
What's dawned on me as I've contemplated what to write in these letters to you are two things. These are my two driving motivations:
First, I can't be a good father without being a good man. The real reason I'm writing is not for you, it's for me - so I can make sure I understand what a good man is and how to become one. Writing this book is a process I want to go through to make sure I'm as prepared as I can be to be a good man. That I can put it into action. It’s a process for talking the talk and walking the walk. If you, any siblings of yours we are blessed to have, or others find value in it, that's great. I hope you (and anyone else) can learn from my mistakes and adventures so you can hopefully make more useful mistakes than I have.
The second lesson has taken me years to figure out. I haven't been able to understand why my life was in such disarray in the spring of 2012, and how it got back on track. Through reflection, I've realized that I was chasing power instead of choosing goodness.
I’ve come to believe that that if you eliminate artificial, impractical, purely academic distinctions, mortal men are driven by two things that often come into tension with each other: the desire for power and the desire for goodness.
This is a dilemma I’ve experienced and observed often. It happens so often where we must choose between what we know is right and a wrong that gives us more resources, status, or influence.
It happens in the schoolyard when you either choose to join a bully or stand up to him. It happens in business when profits come at the cost of a harmful (but legal) externality. It happens in the community when competing interests jockey for support on an upcoming vote. It happens between family when making decisions as simple as what movie to watch, where to eat, or how to split up an inheritance.
Sometimes, power and goodness are not in tension, and that’s great. But for many consequential decisions, power and goodness are in tension with each other. God can have both, mortal men must choose one or the other when these two desires conflict.
The simplest way I can define power (for the purposes of our conversation) is based on its function. For a mortal man, the purpose of power is to coerce, compel, or influence what he cannot control. And in the world we live in, the league of things we cannot control is vast: we cannot control the weather or the quaking of the earth. We cannot control how we are treated by others and whether others intend to hurt us or not. We cannot control the payout of the genetic lottery endowed to us by our parents when are conceived. We cannot control famine, disease, or the absolute security of our water supply. We cannot control threats of violence or the respect we receive or the degree to which we will be bullied and exploited by individuals or groups with more power than us. This list goes on.
And why would we not want to have control over those things? Isn't it rational and natural to avoid death and suffering? Isn't it reasonable to fear for our own delicate and precarious morality? Does anyone like to be exploited, bullied, or disrespected by other people?
Because we resist suffering and death, we seek to use power to control nature or other people as much as we need to avoid suffering and prevent death. Power is our coping strategy to temper the difficult things we cannot control. As a result, power is a very alluring and desirable.
I find goodness to be more difficult to explain, but I will try.
Goodness is not the opposite of power, it is a desire that sits beside power.
I know that I feel the desire to be pure of heart and soul, to be a creature that doesn't cause pain or suffering to other people, other creatures, or the earth. And I do not just want to avoid the prospect of bringing suffering, pain, and destruction into the world, I want to bring beauty and joy into the world.
I find a certain peace and deep pleasure that comes from being good. Despite knowing that I cam capable of being a monster that hurts others, this is not what I want to become. I do not know where that desire comes from but I know it is there, and I've heard and seen echoes of the same feeling in others. The ability to manifest this feeling through action is what I mean by goodness.
Even if I could substantiate why I feel this deeply rooted inclination of goodness, I don't know that it's something need to substantiate. Does anyone need a justification to be truthful or love purely? Do we need an excuse to do what's right? Do we require a reason to contribute to the beauty in the world?
Even if power and goodness are not opposites, I've felt and observed there to be a trade off between the two. Sometimes, having power makes you less good, which is what the expression “power corrupts” refers to. This can happen in many ways and power comes in many forms, but the corrupting influence of power all boils down to the same mechanism.
If you have power and you grow so accustomed to it or favorable toward it, you come to need it and are afraid of losing it. Humans don't like losing things they need or are addicted to. And when a person is afraid of losing power, they'll go to extraordinary lengths to keep it, even if it means lying, cheating, stealing, or any number of other behaviors that conflict with goodness. The trade off between power and goodness lies in the moments when you cannot bear to lose the power you've grown accustomed to and cannot preserve it in a way that's honest.
Power comes in many forms. It can come in the form of authority, where the power holder has the ability to legally use force or administer sanctions for non-compliance. It can come in the form of money, where the holder of money can exchange that money for goods, services, or loyalty. It can come from status, where the person of high status can persuade others to act in a way of his choosing. It can come in the form of physical fitness or longevity, where the fit body can outmuscle or outlast another.
In the Spring of 2012, my life was falling a part because I was consumed with the pursuit of different forms of power. I was still trying to be a good person, but I really wasn't. Trying to have both - power and goodness - was tearing me into pieces.
I was ignoring the people who I cared about most, cared about me most, and needed me most. I didn't speak with any regularity with your Dada or Dadi - maybe once or twice a week. I was trying to indiscriminately find a girlfriend. I had a tremendous arrogance because of how seriously I took my job and the prestige of the form I worked for. I was destroying my body through exhaustion and my mind through anxiety and sadness.
I was falling apart because I was trying to have power and goodness that were in conflict and couldn’t be held simultaneously. I am lucky that my soul wasn't torn between them for longer than it was.
Here is what all that I've described to you so far boils down to: you have to make a choice because life has trade offs. Will you put power at the center of your life or will you choose goodness?
You may think that you can have both and that's true to an extent. I'd even say that you might need to have some artifacts of power to survive. You have to eat, you have to have shelter, you need some clothing, et cetera. Our individual lives and our whole civilization depends on power, and we will talk about this in its own dialogue.
But there's a difference between "having" both power and goodness and putting both at the center of your life. putting both at thlife. At some point, you will have trade offs between power and goodness. And in those moments you must choose which side of the trade off will win out; will the driving motivation of all your thoughts, decisions, and actions be power or will it be goodness?
Choosing "neither" isn't a choice at all. First, the tension between power and goodness is so prevalent, you won’t be able to avoid it forever. Second, If you don't choose the rest of our culture will choose for you. You will regress to the mean of those you spend the most time with, which as far as I can tell means that by choosing neither you will default to choosing power. Why? Because our culture seems to talk a lot more about power than it does about goodness.
In my life, I've spent too much time chasing power. Most of the time, I didn't even know that I was doing it - precisely because I wasn't making a conscious choice, I was letting society choose for me. I've made so many mistakes and wasted so much time choosing power, and I regret it.
But despite wasting all that time and making all those mistakes, I was still lucky and touched by the grace of God because right around when I met your mother, your Uncle Jeff, Aunt Laura, Aunt Jenny, and Uncle Mike helped me start changing what I was choosing at just the right time. With their help, I was ready at just the right time to become friends with, then date, and then marry your mother. They helped me get back on the path of goodness before I did something which pushed your mother away.
So, my child, what I've realized is that among many things, one of the most sacred, important duties I have as your father is to choose goodness for the rest of my life and to help you do the same.
This is the reason I have written you this letter and the others that follow. Choosing goodness over power and helping you figure out how to do the same is exactly what I (and your mother, of course) intend to do. To me, this is the essential purpose of me being a father to you.
But before we get into the mechanics of how, I owe you a real explanation of why you should choose goodness to be the driving motivation of your life instead of power. So that’s exactly where we will begin in my next letter to you.
If you’re interested in reading more of the Choosing Goodness project, I’d love to send you a quick e-letter when I share additions. Please leave me your contact information and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
To read the next post in this series, “Why Goodness?”, click here.
To see all the posts in this series, click here.