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Lonely Hearts Club

Lonely Hearts Club

October 18, 2021 (802 words)

In the dating world of ‘mature singles’ there is something known as the “90-day syndrome.” That’s how long it takes for a new infatuation to run its course, and for the two adults involved to realize that maybe they don’t have that much in common, after all.

After recently experiencing this syndrome first hand, I’ve been forced to regroup a bit, reconnect with the familiar things that feed my soul, and reconsider just how difficult it will be to actually find a new significant other this late in life.

Part of the problem is being a little crotchety and set in my ways, as any older man or woman is prone to be. But the situation is further complicated by how so many of the things I most enjoy are essentially solitary pursuits.

My spare time is best spent out in the yard planting things, and weeding the beds that have already been planted. I also like to putter around the house, mainly organizing and re-arranging, with a little re-decorating thrown in from time to time. I do much the same thing at work, seeing to it the warehouse never gets too cluttered. As a general rule I like to create order and make things look nice. Symmetry facilitates my thought process, which in turn fuels my favorite pastime: writing. And isn’t that the most solitary pursuit of all?

As for other diversions, I have never really found anyone who shares my taste in music or movies, so I have grown accustomed to pursing those interests on my own, and have discovered a deeper connection to whatever I am listening to or watching as a result.

This runs counter to what people always say: “Everything is better with someone to share it with.” I have not necessarily found that to be the case.

But don’t go getting the wrong idea. It’s not as if I am devoid of social graces. I am always solicitous toward children and strangers, and can muster a requisite display of bonhomie around my peers when it’s called for – at least in short bursts. My charming public façade is sincere, but it is on a strict timer. Behind my smile I always end up looking for a polite way to take my leave. Retiring to my own company gives my mind a little breathing room, and lets me mentally wander and explore uncharted territory.

And there is no accounting for that nervous tick I sometimes display around others. I’m prone to giving long drawn-out answers to even simple questions of a personal nature, the ones most people quickly deflect with a pleasant-sounding cliché. When falling victim to this affliction I can inadvertently come across as a bit of a bore in what is otherwise a casual social setting.

For the record, I never set out to be this way, with such a pronounced solitary streak. It’s just sort of hard-wired into my DNA. Even when I was in my prime, which is a few decades ago now, I felt like a Benedictine monk who just happened to be happily married with four wonderful children. That may not speak well of my performance in the role of husband and father, but looking back I think I did okay on both counts.

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So how exactly do I now intend to identify someone who might want to find themselves a place in this picture? And who might care to include me in theirs?

They say opposites attract, but I’m thinking next time a little less opposite might not be a bad thing. Finding someone with an affinity for the arts and the creative process might be a good idea. As long as that person is not annoyingly artsy-fartsy about it.

And finding someone with an affinity for the entrepreneurial spirit might also help. As long as they see business as a calling, as a form of creative expression – much more than merely a means of making money. Entrepreneurs have the unique opportunity to transform the mundane task of earning a living into a vehicle for inner development – their own and that of those around them.

Just as important will be to meet someone who is already ‘not lonely,’ and doesn’t need to be carried away by the infatuation stage, with its constant texting and talking on the phone and trying to get together. Sure, all that stuff is fun, but it’s hard to maintain such a frantic pace.

One would hope a little infatuation will always be part of the process, and by all means should be enjoyed by both parties. But maybe it should not be allowed to take over our lives, and distract us from the things we have come to enjoy the most as individuals. Some of which may very well be solitary pursuits.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
October 18, 2021

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Powerless to Effect Change

Powerless to Effect Change

October 5, 2021 (174 words)

There are many forms of physical and emotional distress that can befall us in the course of our lives. Some folks have to cope with more of these challenges than others, often for no apparent reason.

It’s the emotional form of distress I wish to comment on this morning. What makes any difficult emotional circumstance even harder to bear is when it’s accompanied by a sense of hopelessness, when one feels powerless to effect a change in the situation.

Professionally and personally, my life has been far from smooth sailing from an emotional perspective. But looking back I guess I always felt I could make things better, even if it eventually took longer than I wanted it to. I can’t imagine what it must be like to feel trapped, and forced to put up with a relationship that was just not working out, be it in a professional or a personal setting.

My sympathies are with anyone – friend or foe – who feels powerless to effect a positive change in their emotional life.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
October 5, 2021

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A Discriminating Eye

A Discriminating Eye

September 27, 2021 (210 words)

It’s funny how some words can fall out of favor, while others acquire a new luster. Acceptance, tolerance, diversity, and love – especially when grouped together like a slogan, as on a button, perhaps – are words we all want to live by these days. Taken together, they deftly capture the spirit of our age.

These four are in stark contrast to a bitter word like discrimination, which is now universally reviled for obvious reasons. To discriminate against someone or something is what any thoughtful, compassionate person wants to avoid like the plague.

But in our earnest quest to avoid all forms of discrimination we have lost an appreciation for what it means to be discriminating. To discriminate may be a blot on one’s character, but to be discriminating is a quality we should all try to cultivate.

A discriminating eye or ear or pallet is the mark of someone who has learned to perceive and appreciate the beauty inherent in the created world, as well as humanity’s attempts to celebrate that beauty via all sorts of artistic expression.

This extends to perceiving and appreciating the special qualities that distinguish each person as a unique creation made in God’s image, endowed with dignity and worthy of being treated with respect.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 27, 2021

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How Much Should Government Do?

How Much Should Government Do?

September 24, 2021 (70 words)

In touting the latest round of his seemingly never-ending infrastructure stimulus package that recently received Congressional approval, President Biden described it as “a unique opportunity to restructure the economy in favor of working people.”

Which got me to thinking… Why does it always fall on government to periodically engineer such a compassionate restructuring? Why can’t the wunderkinds at the controls of our undeniably marvelous capitalist economic engine do that themselves?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 24, 2021

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Faith and Works

Faith and Works

September 12, 2021 (446 words)

The second reading at Mass this morning was that famous passage from James (2:14-26) about faith and works, the one biblical scholars and religious apologists have been arguing about for centuries.

To hear James tell it, faith without good works toward the less fortunate is no faith at all. In the follow-up homily our priest backed this interpretation. He also got a little historical on us, mentioning how Martin Luther made a big splash about five hundred years ago by claiming faith alone was enough for any believer to earn salvation. Regardless what actual deeds one may or may not perform along the way.

Initially our priest seemed to credit Luther with “starting the reform,” implying a serious reform was called for at the time. Then he quickly pivoted to point out the obvious: Martin Luther played a major role in the dividing of Christendom.

We don’t give that dusty, old theological break-up much thought these days. But the concept of pluralism that resulted from being forced to adapt to a plethora of Protestant denominations is obviously where our cherished ideal of liberal democracy – in which everyone is entitled to their own version of the truth – first got its start.

And this morning it occurs to me that separating faith from works, or juxtaposing the two, might just be when the divisive and counter-productive liberal-conservative dichotomy we are now saddled with first began.

I can’t help noticing how a certain breed of American – usually of a conservative bent – has embraced what amounts to a rather self-serving take on who is their brother’s keeper.

But it’s not just the conservatives who are at fault. Most patriotic souls are now Christian-in-name-only, having traded in religious observance and a concern for the “other” in favor of a strict adherence to upward mobility and the gospel of prosperity. We don’t worry much about eternal salvation one way or the other, as we are focused on making the here-and-now as comfortable for ourselves as possible.

But there are still a handful of religiously-motivated people out there, and they justify the Protestant position of “faith alone” by doggedly pointing out how Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has earned our place in heaven, insisting there is nothing a believer can do here on earth to mess that up.

Without wanting to wade into deep theological waters that are over my simple layman’s head, I would say, yes, Christ came here to redeem us. But that doesn’t mean what we do – or fail to do – isn’t factored into the final “salvation equation.”

James was writing about what he knew to be true. Actions always speak louder than words.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 12, 2021

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Eliminating the Middle Class

Eliminating the Middle Class

September 6, 2021 (1,812 words)

I.
These days contrarians of all stripes are a little obsessed with keeping government out of our lives. When the talk turns to politics, the first words you’ll likely hear are “I don’t want socialism.” This can come out sounding ornery or a little scared, depending on who is doing the speaking. But it’s always intended to be disparaging.

When the speaker is a working stiff, this disdain is just rugged individualism writ large. We humble Americans instinctively recoil from rules and regulations that remind us of big brother government. But when hard-working people cast vague aspersions on ‘socialism,’ they are confusing different things that should be evaluated separately.

Salt-of-the-earth types believe in solving their own problems. They want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And if they can do it, they think everyone else should, too. This is a commendable attitude. Nothing beats the sense of accomplishment such effort results in. But this self-sufficient philosophy presumes we all start out on an even footing, more or less. People may share the same desire for self-determination, but not everyone is blessed with a level of cognitive ability that enables them to sort things out and bring their worldly dreams to life.

II.
When my conservative-leaning friends and co-workers – all of whom are salt-of-the-earth types, by the way – join the Fox News chorus and rail against every policy initiative introduced by a dreaded liberal, they are making a common mistake. Their knee-jerk opposition keeps them from noticing how our nation’s formal fiscal policies have always favored the most-clever among us, to the detriment of the not-so-clever, and favor the advantaged who are already well-off. Never mind the happy talk emanating from Republican legislators touting a belief in equal opportunity, and an alleged concern for the middle class.

The pronounced bias in economic policy gives the impression those at the top would like to eliminate the middle class altogether. A dire prospect that should come as no surprise. After all, what we think of as a middle class is actually an anomaly in our nation’s storied history.

A thriving middle class really only existed for a few decades in the middle of the 20th century. It was brought into being by a series of federal anti-trust measures, and by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which made it legal to form a union. What followed those moves was an ever-so-brief golden age that accomplished what conservatives are always talking about, but never deliver: a booming economy that benefited working people as well as owners and investors.

During the wave of middle-class prosperity that spread across the country after WWII, made possible by that anti-trust legislation and the legal formation of labor unions, there were always naysayers. There was always a conservative backlash brewing against the legacy of FDR and his New Deal, and the strain of so-called ‘socialism’ some felt was ruining this once-great country.

As we all know, that conservative backlash has been in the ascendency for the last forty years now, ever since Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh first made it onto the hit parade.

But what we are experiencing today is only the latest salvo in a long-running feud. Since the time of our Founding, conservatives (originally known as “Whigs”) have always advocated for a no-holds-barred economic environment, considering it the best way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats. This sentiment can be found as far back as the Federalist Papers (1787-1788), where James Madison argues for a hands-off approach that will create “an absence of obstacles.”

Implementing this absence of obstacles in the economic realm has yielded undeniable results. Just look at how our economy has flourished over the last two hundred and fifty years. The American version of cowboy capitalism has done wonders for the standard of living enjoyed by lots of our fellow citizens. But many still do not have a place at the table of plenty. And far too many do not experience even a shred of dignity in their working lives.

III.
It’s practically a national pastime to point out the inefficiencies of government, and bemoan how government is always trying to fix social problems but only makes them worse. But government didn’t create the social problems in the first place. The everyman-for-himself, you’re-on-your-own approach to economic life has created our social problems.

What separates the haves from the have-nots? We’re always hearing how ours is the land of equal opportunity, but deep down we know it’s not. That’s okay, though, since a lack of truly equal opportunity is not the fatal flaw in the system. There is opportunity aplenty all around us, even if sometimes it’s a bit on the meager side. To make the most of whatever meager opportunity presents itself one has to be prepared to work hard. But there is another key ingredient to success in our economic free-for-all not mentioned by the cheerleaders for America the Great: a requisite level of cognitive ability. And in this we are not created equal. Some have been blessed with more cognitive ability than others.

Conservatives tend to dismiss the have-nots as being shiftless and lazy. I guess some are, since sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, and is alive and well among us. As are the other six. But mostly what the unemployed, or the under-employed, lack is a decent job that provides training and oversight. They need a routine and a structure at work, a path forward that will provide a reliable framework for their lives. Not to mention a level of compensation that allows them to live.

During that ever-so-brief golden age, this is what those with a higher level of cognitive ability (the managerial class) offered those with less cognitive ability (the working class). It was referred to as the social contract, and it has been ripped apart by mergers and acquisitions that have eliminated so many working-class jobs, and by the gig economy that has converted the remaining working-class jobs to ‘independent contractor’ positions with no oversight and no benefits. In our brave new 21st century world employers have been excused from considering the well-being of their lower tier employees.

This is the biggest threat to a healthy middle class. It is what prevents our society from functioning in a more equitable manner. Notice how rectifying the situation has nothing whatsoever to do with either a liberal or a conservative policy position.

It simply boils down to clever and advantaged people exhibiting a sense of responsibility toward those who are not quite as clever or not quite as advantaged. Since it is ordained in the nature of things that those with a lesser degree of cognitive ability will find themselves employed by smarter people at some point, it is incumbent upon those smarter people to figure out how to provide gainful employment that offers training and oversight, and pays a living wage. This is the secret that will complete the circle and result in a more just society.

Our heralded founding documents – the Declaration of Independence. the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, etc. – fail to touch on this all-important piece of information in any way, shape, or form.

IV.
What constitutes a ‘living wage’ is yet another subject that riles up conservatives. The idea of a federally-mandated minimum is anathema to them. Supply and demand alone should determine wage rates. I dare say the only folks who believe this are already living on the comfortable side of the street.

It’s not as mysterious and unfathomable a calculation as some would have us believe. It should be a simple evaluation of basic living expenses per geographic area, like housing and transportation. It will naturally vary a bit from one company to the next, depending on a given’s company’s profitability.

To arrive at a legitimate living wage an employer should avoid limiting compensation for the rank and file to what the going rate happens to be. Because the going rate is often nothing but a gentleman’s agreement among plutocrats to keep lower tier workers in their place, so as to maximize return for owners and investors.

Naturally this logic is meant to apply to successful enterprises, and not so much to small, fledgling concerns. But when a company is going gangbusters, it should be sharing the wealth. This includes doling out meaningful profit-sharing to all employees, not just to executives and upper management. It should provide an environment that is safe for line workers and production people, and foster a sense of collaboration that lets them enjoy a measure of dignity.

To my way of thinking politics cannot solve our social problems, but economics can. Which is why I am not all that interested in politics, per se. I favor a more philosophical approach to life’s challenges. And I haven’t found a philosophy that is as comprehensive in dealing with the social questions as Christianity has proven itself to be. The original version, that is. The one with two thousand years of continually grappling with these issues under its belt.

V.
In assessing the various threats to a thriving middle class, I am trying to look at all this from a slightly broader perspective than my friends the liberals and conservatives typically do. While not discounting the desire on the part of certain rulers to control the citizenry, or the presence of nefarious motives on the part of certain plutocrats, I believe the underlying problem is a lack of empathy and ingenuity on the part of our entrepreneurial class. That is to say, I believe most men and women with a head for business wake up in the morning wanting to do the right thing. But they simply don’t know how. There are not enough good examples to follow, which leaves them at a loss.

The clever and the advantaged talk a good game when it comes to “doing good and doing well,” but our most successful citizens need to hold themselves more accountable in fulfilling the latter objective. When the going gets tough – as it always does in business – movers and shakers tend to fall back into survival mode and focus on their own interests. Then when things turn the proverbial corner and everything starts coming up roses, they never get around to recalibrating their formula. They never manage to take all the stakeholders involved into account – not just their full complement of employees, but also their suppliers, the surrounding community, etc.

As a general rule, winners are prone to amnesia, and convince themselves success was achieved solely through the force of their indominable will. The legion of middle-class people they employ are merely interchangeable parts of no real consequence. In the end they appease their consciences by practicing tax-dodge philanthropy, and leave it at that. To the detriment of society as a whole.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 6, 2021

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