About a year and a half ago, I wrote a year-end post about Baseball, in which I discussed the passing of a wonderful former star for the Chicago Cubs during my youth—Ron Santo. I would like to spend this mid-summer post gloating about his recent induction into the Hall of Fame (and I will touch on that briefly at the end of this post), but life got in the way. Unfortunately, like so many Americans this past weekend, I was reminded of the arbitrariness of life and of the randomness with which violence can destroy lives.
Yes, I am talking about the shootings in Aurora, Colorado—and yes, I know, everybody and their cousin’s uncle has commented on this tragedy. But, for a moment, I want to focus on the relevance to this tragedy of some things I’ve been writing about for a long time.
While so many people at times like this wring their hands about the easy availability of guns, or the lack of long-term care available for the mentally ill, and try to urge quick legislative fixes to the these senseless tragedies—they simply assuage their own guilt while missing the point completely. Those factors are nothing more than enablers of what is going on—neither causes, nor even symptoms, of what is wrong. I think what is wrong is deeper than either of those issues, and is larger than anything petty politics or simple legislation can address—the core of this problem really goes to the soul of a generation in this country (my generation, the “Baby Boomers”). To let me explain, please indulge me for a moment with a few digressions. But, before I digress, I want you to keep in mind the first definition of society in the American Heritage Dictionary: “the totality of social relationships among humans.” [emphasis added]
Probably the greatest speech Ronald Reagan ever gave was made during the fall of his first year as Governor of California. In September, 1967, Reagan returned to his alma mater, Eureka College, to give an address to dedicate the opening of a new library on campus (The Value of Understanding the Past). During that speech Reagan made the following prophetic statements on the eve of all the turmoil that would rock this country during 1968:
We have to re-examine our individual goals and aims. What do we want for ourselves and our children? Is it enough to have material things? Aren’t liberty and morality and integrity and high principles and a sense of responsibility more important? The world’s truly great thinkers have not pointed us toward materialism; they have dealt with the great truths and with the high questions of right and wrong, of morality and of integrity. They have dealt with the question of man, not the acquisition of things. And when civilizations have disregarded their findings, when they have turned to the things of the flesh, they have disappeared….
… But we must learn from yesterday to have a better tomorrow. We are beset by problems in a complex world; we are confused by those who tell us only new and untried ways offer hope. The answers to all the problems of mankind will be found in this building by those who have the desire to find them and perception enough to recognize them….One of mankind’s problems is that we keep repeating the same errors. For every generation some place, two plus two has added up to three, or in another place, five – four seems to elude some of us. This has happened in my generation and I predict, without smugness, it will happen to yours….
A few of those dusty books with those “answers to all the problems of mankind,” still sit in a library somewhere. They include, but are not limited to, the New Testament, the poetry of the 17th Century Anglican priest, John Donne, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and President Washington’s Farewell Address, which state (in order):
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us…. … For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another! (St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus), The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, around 54 or 55 A.D. (the New King James Version).
…all mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language…God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another…. No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne, Devotions, Meditation XVII: Now this bell tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die (1624)).
…no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles…;…and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other. (Virginia Declaration of Rights, paragraphs 15 and 16, June, 1776).
Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct. … It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period a great nation to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. (President Washington’s Farewell Address, September 17, 1796).
All of these old quotes point to a lesson and a challenge—yes, we’ve been given freedom, but we’ve also been challenged to use that freedom to create relationships with our neighbors, and to care for those neighbors to build communities and a society, and, in the end, to protect our freedom. In essence, that liberty we were given may have provided us with independence from governments or dictators or Pharisees; but to sustain that gift, we were challenged to develop an enduring interdependence of family and neighborhood—a fundamental interdependence to sustain relationships of free people, and, therefore, to sustain a society designed to preserve and protect the gifts of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was an interdependence based on the commitment to each other of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” It was that challenge that our Settlers and Founders accepted, and it was that challenge that prompted us to improve ourselves throughout our history.
Somewhere, though, in all the turmoil and search for “truth” that engulfed the Baby Boom generation as we came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, we began to abandon the quest for interdependence and to substitute it with the embrace of autonomy—and then we called this new autonomy “liberty” and passed this fundamental misunderstanding of our society to our children. We coveted our freedom to come, go and do as we pleased, while we came to abhor our neighborhoods as “Peyton Place.” Privacy became the watchword, and fences became our shield from participating in something larger than ourselves.
As the decades have come and gone, and our hair has thinned and grayed, this new approach to freedom has allowed many of us who were raised with strong self-esteem to prosper alone—as islands onto ourselves. But, as the Wall Street Journal noted almost two decades ago, this approach left many of our neighbors without the relationships and guardrails they needed to succeed in life (No Guardrails: August 1968 and the death of self-restraint).
And the loss of these guardrails has had deadly consequences for society. We’ve left people alone over the decades who needed friendship and neighbors. In the process, we’ve gotten people whose torments and troubles become magnified in their loneliness and autonomy, and who then lash out in violence—at a doctor in Florida, at fellow students in Colorado and Virginia, at citizens meeting with their Congresswoman in Tucson, in a movie theater in Colorado, and on and on. What has happened is the antithesis of what is supposed to happen in the context of a caring, neighborly love; of what is supposed to happen in the context of an interdependence that our forefathers believed was essential to maintain a society of free people. That interdependence can not be substituted by a government program or bureaucrat. It is an individual responsibility—neighbor to neighbor. Without it, people fester alone in their own indulgences—and when coupled with an absence of self-discipline, the consequences are often violent and destructive.
In the meantime, have those of us who “prospered alone” really succeeded? Look at the headlines of the weeks preceding the shootings in Colorado, and you’ll see breaches of trust by those who supposedly were the success stories: the CEO of a commodities trading firm who misused his clients’ accounts for 20 years in order to avoid personal failure; an entire city council of a town in California that caused the town to declare bankruptcy, in part, because those leaders improperly accounted for public funds for more than a decade; and a revered football coach and officers of a public university who cared more about their image than the safety of children in their community.
What the editors of the Wall Street Journal tried to articulate almost two decades ago is still true. In every age and in every society, people erected “guardrails”, or traditions or customs to live by. The best of those customs tend to discipline–or teach–members of the society about right and wrong behavior and keep such behavior within an accepted civil norm so that society can function. A society that recognizes no norms for civility, and no difference between right and wrong behaviors, quickly devolves into chaos. Moreover, a society that won’t instill those customs and traditions through caring interaction between neighbors soon becomes dysfunctional. Just as you can’t remodel a house merely by tearing the walls to the studs without replacing them, you can’t simply change the traditions and customs for a society by erasing or ignoring them–you need to replace them with traditions or customs that fit the framework of the original structure, and then work to instill those customs and traditions, or you loosen the bonds of civility and society.
Those traditions and customs must be grounded on principles and virtues consistent with maintaining an interdependent society of free people: traditions and customs that promote “justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and … forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” This can’t be done by delegating our obligations as free people to someone else or government—government doesn’t love your neighbor, people do. Nor can it be accomplished by adopting new “first principles” that are foreign to our civilization, our beliefs, and our history. Maybe, if we rekindle these “first principles” hiding in all those dusty old books with proper customs and traditions, we will reduce the future risk of events like the Colorado shootings, and we will re-establish the commitment to honor and self-discipline that keeps us from giving in to avarice. Isn’t it worth a try?
All of this gets me back to Ron Santo. Santo was a “hero” from my youth. He arguably was the best third-baseman in the National League during the 1960s and early 1970s. He played on the great Cub infield of the late 1960s, which, in 1969, placed all four infielders (Ernie Banks, Glen Beckert, Don Kessinger, and Santo), and the catcher (Randy Hundley), on the National League All-Star squad, with Santo starting at Third. He was an All-Star 9 of his 14 National League Seasons. For a generation of kids who grew up in the Chicago area, he was the heart-and-soul of a team that included Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Leo Durocher.
But, most importantly, he continued to give to the community for the remainder of his life. Santo stayed in Chicago after retirement and became the radio voice for the Cubs for two decades before his death. While he fought the ravages of diabetes and lost both legs to the disease, he kept his charm and his sense of humor, and he worked with young boys in the community to teach them to be men. He didn’t wallow in his troubles and lash out at society; nor did he prey on the young boys who worked with him. Instead, he became an inspiration to a whole new generation of young boys—as a well as a continued inspiration to us older boys.
What we need in order to avoid the isolation that creates events like the Colorado shootings—and all of the avarice that pervades the halls of private and public power—is not more laws. We need a lot more Ron Santos—in our families, our neighborhoods, and our private and public institutions. And we need to do the hard work of rebuilding traditions and customs that produce and sustain the Ron Santos among us.
It’s just that simple—and that hard.
But, again … isn’t it worth a try?