Dogs, Squirrels, and a Wasted Life

 Sadie on Squirrel Guard Duty

Sadie on Squirrel Guard Duty

My dog is obsessed with squirrels. I realize all dogs are, but she has taken things to a different level. She has dialed her squirrel intensity up to 11. Her walks are less about exercise and more about squirrel hunting. Her eyes continuously scan the environment looking for the flicking tail or bounding scamper of her prey. So intent is she that she remembers the location of every previous squirrel sighting so she can return to it on following days. As she approaches the sites of previous encounters her body tenses and quivers and she strains against her leash, muscles taut, ready to launch into the chase should the animal reappear.

Lately her squirrel problem has become our problem. There seems to be a somnambulatory one that likes to traverse our back fence in the middle of the night. Our sleep is often interrupted by the sound of our dogs jumping to their feet, sprinting down the hall, and bursting through the doggy door in response to the sound of the squirrel invader.

Things have escalated. We are now at SquirrelCon 4. It seems that this squirrely night walker has now taken up residence in our neighbor’s yard. As far as Sadie is concerned this is an evil that cannot stand. She is perpetually on the lookout for it, spending hours on guard duty staring through a crack in the fence. She will not rest until her furry enemy enters its final rest. The squirrel’s death is now her primary reason for living.

As I watched her watching the fence this morning I laughed at the absurdity of her doggy behavior. The squirrel was impossibly out of her reach. There was nothing she could do to get to it, yet she gave it all of her attention.

This behavior is funny in a dog, but it is tragic for people. Looking at her I thought about the hours, days and years I have similarly wasted focusing on things that were unobtainable and out of reach. I thought of the time I spent wishing my father would realize disowning me was a mistake and hoping my mom would become sober. I recalled patient behavior I could not change, professional recognition I could not gain, and relationship problems I could not solve. I had so many thoughts about so many things I couldn’t change.  It seems that wasted attention is not merely a canine problem.

What is sad about futile attention is that it always has a cost. When we focus on the unobtainable we turn away from blessings that are within our reach. Time spent trying to change patients who were set in their ways is time I could have spent helping others who would have benefitted from my attention. Hours of thinking and planning on how I could get people to appreciate me are hours I could have spent in quality moments with the family and friends who already loved me and appreciated me.

How much better would all of our lives be if we learned this lesson. It is time to focus on the good we can do, the love we can share and the lives we can touch, and not on those things beyond our reach.

It is time to be smarter than my dog.

Bart

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The Wealth of a Poor Young Man

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Money was tight. He had left a job that met his financial needs because there was no opportunity for advancement, and instead took a job with the promise of a future, getting hired on as an apprentice electrician. Sadly, the contractor’s promises of work proved empty and within a month he found himself working only a few days a week and struggling to make ends meet. To make matters worse the physical nature of the job caused an old back injury flared. He was left wondering if his body would be able to tolerate the demands of an electrical career. Injured backs and pulling cable through tight spaces don't mix.

He is only 27, he has very little money and an uncertain future, yet he is one of the most impressive young men I have met. He is poor, but he has something most men lack. He has values. He is looking not for material wealth or pleasure, but for a job that will one day provide for his family. The mere fact that he wants a family to provide for is unique among men his age. He has no interest in casual sex or one night stands. He is looking for commitment, for a woman to marry.

In spite of his financial challenges he talks little about the things he lacks, or about things he wants to do our buy. He prefers to talk about the people he loves and cares about. Relationships matter to him, and he speaks proudly of his younger brother and his mother and what they mean to him. He is poor but still thinks of the needs of others. He recently moved into a new apartment, and when his parents offered to buy him a new living room set he refused to consider expensive furniture. He walked out of the high priced store store they had taken him to and chose instead to go to a discount store. He did not want them to waste money.

He is a man of faith. He is active in his church, and the ability to have Sundays off was a major factor in his decision to change jobs. He has meaningful relationships with people in the church and participates in a small group every Thursday night.

He has had a difficult life but he is not bitter. His father died of leukemia 7 years ago, a loss that could have made him angry at God and the world. His faith remains strong and his belief in the goodness of God has endured. He has embraced his mother’s new husband, rejoicing in her happiness and welcoming the man into his life.

He is a former patient who has become a friend, and we get together every once in a while over breakfast. When we talk I often think of the many other men his age I have met over the years, men with better pedigrees, engineers, lawyers, medical students and other professionals. So many of them are chasing wealth, prestige and pleasure. Although he is less successful in a worldly sense he stands out for the things he has that others lack- purpose, peace, and character. He is rich in the things that matter, a reminder that there are still good young men in this world.

- Bart

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Where Do Perverts Come from?

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Based on recent revelations in the media I have come to the conclusion that I have been living under a rock for several decades. I had no idea there were so many disgusting men in the world. I was not so foolish as to think there were no disgusting men, it is impossible to have observed the 2016 Presidential election without admitting the existence of such beasts, but I thought perverts were incredibly rare. Like white whales, Halley’s comet and $10,000 lottery tickets, I never expected to encounter one.

I am realizing that episodes of sexual harassment are more like serious car accidents. The fact that I may never experience one does not mean they don’t happen every day.

Just this week a patient shared with me her stories (sadly she had more than one). When she was a young single mother she worked in a high level sales job. One afternoon her boss asked her to join him on some late customer visits. She initially declined due to child care needs but when he offered to pay the cost of a sitter for the evening she reluctantly agreed. The clients were among their most important and she felt she needed to go. The sales calls were uneventful, but ended after 7 PM  so she accepted his invitation to join him for dinner. At the conclusion of the meal he surprised her by invitingly saying, “I have a room here in this hotel.” She was stunned. She was not that kind of girl and she did not think it was that kind of dinner. She told him she needed to go home to her children and wanted to be driven back to her car, right then. She was let go from the job in a matter of weeks.

Later in life she worked in a CPA firm. She was an up and coming accountant in a the firm working the required hours so she could become a CPA herself. There were two senior partners in the small office, one of whom had a habit of standing next to her when she was at the copy machine. He would frequently stand close enough that he could rub his leg up against hers. Any thoughts that this was incidental contact were proven false on the occasion he slid his hand along her thigh. She was mortified, but he was a senior partner and she was desperate for the job. She said nothing.

Hearing her story, and reading the stories of others, I find myself wondering, “How does his happen?” What happens in the mind of a man that leads him to conclude that such behavior is acceptable? Some form of perverse rationalization must be going on. Very few people are so evil as to think, “I know this is a terrible and perverse act, but I am going to do it anyway.” Something is happening in the twisted minds of bad men that leads them to think it is okay for them to do what they are doing.

We see this in the lame “apologies” of some of those whose perverse behavior has come to light. Charlie Rose’s statement that he thought there was “consensual” interest would be laughable if it was not so pathetic. (Sorry, Charlie, no one wanted to see your wrinkly old body naked.)

How is it that otherwise intelligent men can reach such idiotic conclusions about how they can and should interact with women? I have a few thoughts.

-          They have no moral goals. They have personal goals and financial goals and sexual goals, but they do not strive for moral excellence. Men who strive to be honorable, respectable, good and kind men do not harass others.

-          They do not see women for who they truly are, individuals created in the image of God. Men who view women as Daughters of the King will be more likely to treat women as royalty. I doubt Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose would have dared to disrobe in front of the Queen of England. Good men know that all women are equal in value to the Queen and act accordingly. 

-          They do not cultivate attitudes of respect and honor towards women. Herein lies one of the dark consequences of the pornography epidemic. It should come as no surprise that a nation in which 61 percent of male college graduates report recent pornography use has a surplus of perverts. Men who desire to develop positive attitudes about women will avoid seeing women objectified and degraded. Good men avoid porn, knowing that normal women do not look like or act like the women in those images. Good men work to develop healthy, positive thoughts about women.

-          They get away with it. This is the saddest aspect of the story. We live in a world where profit is more important than people. Donald Trump was right. If you are a celebrity you can grab women and get away with it. Bad behavior needs to have consequences. If there is anything good about all the recent revelations it is that negative consequences are finally becoming a reality.

In these reasons for perversion we find the solutions to the problem as well. Men need to be trained in how to be better men. Leaders in business, faith and society need to set examples for others to follow. The Apostle Paul said it well in his instructions to his friend Timothy when he told him “in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.”

I am working on this with some men I know. I recently started a weekly men’s group. The goal of the group is simple- We are men meeting together to help each other be better men. We recently spent an hour talking about what it means to honor our wives and other women. We talked about appropriate speech and conduct, about respect and kindness. One of the points we made is that if we are focused on being the best men we can be and if we are striving to treat women with honor and respect, there will be no room in our lives for abuse or harassment.

I cannot speak for the rest of society, but these men and I are working to make our world a better place. We know that change begins with us. Although none of us can change the world on our own, we know we can all impact our corner of it.

Bart

Thanks for reading and sharing. If any men in the Huntington Beach area are interested in starting or joining a men’s group focused on being better men, godly men, feel free to contact me.

The Value of My Father's Life

How should a life be measured?

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I have reflected on the question for the last few days as I ponder the passing of my father. It is easy to focus only on the end of his life and the decisions that led to his isolation and estrangement from his family but I do not think that is fair. My father was a mean and angry man who did mean and angry things, but he did not do only mean and angry things. Like all of us, he was much more complicated than that.

He was a violent man who beat my mother while they were married. When she took their three young children (we were all under 5 years old), he could have abandoned us. He could have ignored his responsibilities and refused to pay child support. He could have, but he didn’t. The checks always came.

When my mother divorced her second husband and became a single mom to three teenage boys she found herself in dire financial straits. She asked my father for more child support. He didn’t have to pay her more as there was no court order compelling him to increase the payments, but he did. As seemingly incapable as he was of giving emotional support he never wavered in his financial support.

As a father, he was often impossible to please. I have vivid memories of being a small child and him harshly criticizing me for the way I pulled on my socks, took off my shirts and even my choice of spoon when I ate my morning cereal. I was a pigeon-toed and awkward child and his biting “humor” found in me an easy target.  He called me "spastic" and when someone else was clumsy he said they had "pulled a Bart." His words were incredibly hurtful and damaging. To this day the memories of his words still bring a sense of fear and anxiety.

As mean as he was this angry man found the time to play with us. He taught us card games, played board games with us and organized football and basketball games with the kids in the neighborhood. He took us to San Diego Padres baseball games and Chargers football games and took us to the beach and taught us how to ride the waves on an inflatable raft. These moments were not idyllic, he was often impatient and critical and some initially pleasant times  degenerated into tears, but he gave us attention. He was inconsistent and unpredictable but there were times when he tried to be a dad.

His struggles with being a parent did not end when I reached adulthood. He struggled with my independence and career choices. He wanted more from me than I did for myself. He appropriately questioned my decision to drop out of college and forcefully encouraged me to re-enroll. When I did, he paid my tuition all the way through medical school. In spite of his financial support he did not have much faith in me. I will never forget his response when I told him of my perfect GPA at the end of my first year at the University of California, Irvine. He said, “I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.”

He was not a man of encouragement. He seldom gave praise and never gave hugs. Growing up I never thought he was proud of me or that he loved me for who I was. He seemed to see every flaw and catch every mistake while missing or minimizing every success. And yet, when I looked into the audience as I walked off the stage with my Medical Diploma in my hands I saw my father head and shoulders above the crowd, standing on his chair and proudly pumping his fist in the air.

For the three years I was in my Family Practice residency he was incredibly supportive of me and my family. Each month a check for $500 came in the mail, (almost $1000 in today's dollars.) He knew my resident’s salary was not enough to support a family and he did not want Lisa to have to work. It is because of him that she was able to stay home with our son.

His generosity had a profound impact on our lives, which made his decision to disown me shortly after graduation so difficult to process. I knew he was angry and had fits of temper, but I had always hoped there was some measure of good underneath. I had heard the horrible stories told by my step-brother and mother, of physical and verbal abuse, but thought that he had softened with age, and that love, especially for his grandson, would win out. It didn't.  His choice to cut off all contact with me and my family for the remaining 24 years of his life proved that anger ultimately won.

So how do I measure his life?

There is no question that his anger and inability to love left marks on me. My battles with anxiety, insecurity and anger are part of his cursed heritage. I struggle every day to overcome the damage he wrought. It is only by the grace of God that I have learned what it means to be a loving husband and father. Although I had no role model in my own family, God blessed me with a father-in-law who modeled goodness and kindness. 

In spite of the damage my father did it does not seem fair to ignore the support he gave me earlier in life. His gifts were tainted and had strings attached but they made a difference nonetheless. They had value. While the good he did is dwarfed by the harm, his warped generosity did help my family through difficult times. He was not a good man, but he was more than just a bad man.

I think this is the reality for all of us. None of us are totally good or totally evil. We are all broken people who fail and succeed to varying degrees. This truth of universal brokenness begs the question- How do we measure a life? Do we pull out a set of scales and divide up a man’s deeds and see where the balance lies? If so, do we give greater weight to more recent harms or blessings?  Many people have done terrible deeds believing in the moment that they were doing the right thing. How do we decide where to draw the line?

I do not believe that I am in a position to answer this question for others. It is not my place to decide. As I think about my father I realize there are pieces of his puzzle that are hidden from me. I have no knowledge of his childhood or of his relationship with his father. I do not know if he was abused or scorned, loved or hated. I do not know his mental history. As an experienced physician I see in his behavior hints of mental illness that were not visible to me when I was young. I do not know if he battled his demons or embraced them. I do not know if he was even capable of love. 

What I do know is that he paid a price for his sins in this life. I have wonderful children who fill the world with love, joy and laughter. My father never knew them. Theirs is a joy he never shared. In my relationship with my father-in-law I experienced the incredibly rich blessing of shared respect between two grown men. I received the wisdom of his years of life experience and he received the joy of seeing his wisdom shape me into a better person. My father never experienced this blessing, the joy of adult friendship with a son. My father lived the pain of loneliness.

Sadly for my father, the pain of this life pales in comparison to the pain that may await. My father rejected faith many years ago. To my knowledge he never turned to God. For the rest of eternity he will give account to His creator for his choice. It is God who will judge.

As it is God who will ultimately judge there is little to be gained expending energy judging my father. My time is better spent judging my own heart. When I turn my gaze inward I see incredible room for improvement. I have more bad in me than can be expunged in one lifetime. While true goodness eludes me I nevertheless intend to spend the rest of my life striving to be a better man.

The success of my self improvement efforts will be measured after I am gone. I often tell others that I have two goals in life, both to be fulfilled when I die. The first is that when I stand before my God I will hear Him say, “Well done.” The second is that my children will tell others on my passing that I was the greatest man they ever knew. I do not know if I will ever achieve these goals but I am certain that they will not be achieved without continuous intentional effort on my part.

I am also certain that the pursuit of these goals will bring peace and joy in this lifetime, and confident hope for the next.

- Bart

 

A Little Self-Hate Can Go a Long Way

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There are things I absolutely hate about myself, aspects of my personality I despise and long to change, inherited tendencies I wish I could kill and bury. While it is possible that focusing too much on my list of faults could lead to poor self-esteem and a life of guilt and shame I am convinced that failing to address these traits would have a worse result. I would be a very bad man. I need to be better.

Among the things I wish I could change-

-          I am not a good listener. Wait, that is too kind. I am a terrible listener. My racing brain causes me to think of responses before some is halfway through a second sentence.

-          I inherited my father’s temper. I have a tendency to lash out and be unkind. I need to slow down more and think of the feelings of others.

-          I am inpatient and intolerant of the faults of others. It is too easy for me to point fingers and criticize. I need more grace.

-          I am a worrier, my anxiety can cause me to be fearful about things that may never happen and seldom do.

-          I have an unhealthy need for affirmation, I can work too hard trying to please others.

There is not room in a blog post for the complete list, so I will stop here. Needless to say, I have a LOT of things I am working on. But to me, that is the point. I am working on the list. I am not content with the person I am, not satisfied with where I am in my personal life. I need to be better.

This desire to be better is not limited to external actions. I need to think better thoughts as well. In the dark reaches of my brain lurk some pretty terrible things, things which if allowed to take hold and grow would result in terrible deeds. I realize what the Apostle Paul meant when he spoke of “taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.” I have thoughts that need to be put in jail, rehabilitated when possible and executed when not!

I am not alone in my struggles against and within myself. The need to struggle against the evil within is a universal one. Those who excuse their bad thoughts and behaviors, those who justify their actions instead of working to be better, will ultimately be exposed to the world as the wretches they are.

We are seeing this now on a daily basis. Each morning we wake to new reports of the terrible behavior of some celebrity or person in power. From Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Mark Halperin there appears to be an unending stream of immoral behavior flowing from the hearts of powerful men. The natural question arises, “How could they do such terrible things?” As I hear these stories I find myself replying, “This is what happens when you don’t hate the evil inside.”

This is what happens when you make excuses for your perversity, when you consider yourself more important than others, so special and important that your desires deserve to be met. This is what happens when being a good person, being a better, kinder person, does not matter enough. The process is always the same. First we tolerate the evil desire, then we excuse the evil behavior.

If we want to be better people we need to change our priorities as a society. We need to lessen our emphasis on self-esteem and feeling good about ourselves and encourage more balanced self-assessment. When it comes to the evil in our hearts and minds, the world can use some more hate.

- Bart

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