Monday, January 22, 2007

Choices and Consequences

"[T]here is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. . . . The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account for awhile, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is . . . the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all -- gives hope to all, and . . . improvement of conditions to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune." -
Abraham Lincoln.

I don't know about you, but I love Abraham Lincoln. He was one of my first heroes, perhaps my first "real person" hero after I finished idolizing characters like Big Bird, Superman, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett and Superman. (When I was three my full name was Randall Christopher Davey Crockett Superman Aquaman Daniel Boone Pa Belanger. Or something like that. My mother knows the full name but she's not with us anymore to refresh my memory.)

I loved the story of Abe Lincoln when I was a boy though. My favorite thing to do was read about Abe when he was a boy. In fact one time I engaged my uncle in helping me duplicate one of Abe's childhood pranks. My uncle lifted me up one evening when my parents were out and helped me "walk" across the ceiling of our living room, leaving my footprints along the way.

As I've grown older I've come to respect Abe even more. Abraham Lincoln is remembered today as the President who abolished slavery, and eventually paid for that crucial victory and his resolve to keep America one country with his life at the hands of an assassin. There was so much more to the man though, so many more parts to his character that ensured that he would be a great man even had he never become President. Central to these characteristics was a work ethic combined with a thirst for knowledge that was nearly unquenchable.

Abraham Lincoln was a man that never received very much formal educational training, but was well known for his intelligence, wit and wisdom. He was tireless in his pursuit of knowledge, and it was this unquenchable search which ultimately helped him secure the Republican nomination for president.

Last week I came across the preceding quote form Lincoln, and it struck a chord in me. It such a stark contrast to how so many people today are living their lives. The way Lincoln depicts it, a man starts out with not very much and works for someone else until he is ready to strike out on his own. Then, after working for himself and establishing himself, he takes on someone else after a period of time and helps them to reach the point where they can strike out on their own.

That may be the America Abe Lincoln lived in, but it certainly doesn't look like the one I live in today. In the America I live in, many people, and they aren't all young, seem to think that there is actually work that is beneath them. In the America where I live, if you aren't able to make ends meet on your own, then you are entitled to government assistance. If something bad happens to you, then you are owed assistance, and if it isn't delivered in a timely enough manner to suit you, then someone else should be excoriated for their failure in getting you the assistance.

For instance, since Hurricane Katrina there was been a great outcry concerning the people that were left stranded to face the brunt of that horrible storm. Everyone from President Bush to the local political machinery has been blamed for the failure to get these people out of that area on time. While there certainly were failures to react to the situation appropriately before and after the storm hit, the fault cannot be left to government agencies alone.

See, here's the thing. This sense of entitlement and the abandonment of the American work ethic in favor of the search for the get-rich-quick solution to life have crippled our country. At no other time in our country has it's citizens enjoyed greater opportunity for advancement than right now, and at no other time in our country has it's citizens been less interested in truly working for that advancement.

Abraham Lincoln enjoyed no opportunity to go to college or even a regular school for that matter. He seized every book that he could get his hands on and he memorized entire chapters along the way. In contrast, today there is something in our public schools called "social promotion", whereby a child will be advanced to the next grade level when falling behind students of the same age based basically on their attitude and ability of the student not to bother the teacher while they are trying to teach the children who are actually doing the work assigned. Abraham Lincoln would be ashamed.

I've seen people lambasted for suggesting that as horrible as it was for people to have had to endure Hurricane Katrina, that some of them should bear the responsibility of having been there. On a more general level, I've seen and heard, and even experienced people being ridiculed and labeled as not having any compassion for suggesting that people that live in the poorer parts of our cities and our country bear some, or even most, of the responsibility for the state of their lives.

The shame of it is, that is just the plain truth. I grew up in Duggan projects in Indian Orchard, MA. My mother was a single parent when it wasn't en vogue to be one. To make matters worse, she had a second child when I was two years old. I never found out about him until I was 16, and I'll never forget the day my mother told me or the way she explained it.

My mother simply said that she had to make a decision. She told me she knew that at 21 years old she simply didn't have the resources to give us both the opportunities that she wanted us to have, and that ultimately keeping us both would just limit where we could go in life. She decided then, to keep me and give him up for adoption in the hopes that he would be given to a family that would love him and care for him.

It wasn't hard for me to see how painful a decision it had been for her, because while we had this conversation, she couldn't stop crying. I love my mother. She was a wonderful woman and I know that Christ was well pleased with the way she lived her life before she went home to be with Him. I hurt that she hurt. But here is the thing, I know it's her own fault. She made choices along the way to put herself in the situation that she was in, and when you make the choices that she made, you have to face the consequences of those decisions.

I know that from personal experience as well. For instance, I firmly believe that I could have gone to an Ivy League school. For years I was always at the top of my class, my standardized test scores in school were always the highest you could get in every subject, and I was always in the top classes. Then I made the choice to begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and eventually I dropped out of high school. Nobody forced me to do it, I chose it for myself. I alone bear the responsibility to begin to lead that life, and I alone bear the responsibility for the consequences I faced as I continued to lead that life year after year.

There are people I have come in contact with throughout the years that would not believe that I am the person I am today. There are people I have disappointed, offended and hurt who would have a difficult time believing that I am a genuinely devoted to God. Those are the consequences you face when you make a choice to express your faith in God and then continue to live a hedonistic lifestyle. I bear the responsibility for that.

In my life my poor decisions have caused me to live at friends house, to live in my car and to have to work at jobs that nobody in their right mind would choose to do. My poor decisions have caused me to live a life filled with more pain that I had to deal with. Now, today I can praise God because I realize that God was using all of those experiences to refine me, and also to make me realize that I was choosing to live that way.

In the same light, when you fail to take your education seriously, and you fail to respect your elders and those in authority over you, and you refuse to respect your own person, eventually you will have to pay the consequences. There is no escaping that reality. Eventually, you will pay. The choice is up to you. You can pay with wisdom and discipline and afford yourself the opportunity to succeed, or you can forgo wisdom and discipline and pay the consequences. Those consequences are going to be a huge lack of resources, ability and opportunity to achieve the success you might otherwise achieved had you decided to choose differently.

Now, perhaps right now you're reading this and you thing it's very simple and easily understood. I would agree that it is simple, simple to understand anyway. However, it is not very simple to put in practice, because if it were, then we wouldn't have the high rate of people that live below what we call the poverty level in this country. (You know, those poor people living in that nice Section 8 complex with the car and the cable television and the air conditioning.) If it were that simple to put into practice then we wouldn't have the high rate of teenage pregnancy we do in our country. If it were that simple to put into practice then we wouldn't have the high rate of high school drop-outs, or the high rate of drug abuse in our inner city, or the high rate of violent crime in our inner city....or all the other things that rob Americans of the opportunity to succeed.

But make no mistake, in very few of these cases did the victim not also play a part in the situation they fell into. We all face adversity in our lives. How we choose to face that adversity determines our opportunities to succeed. Although we may not bear the responsibility for that adverse situation, such as being born to a family in the inner city, how we choose to handle that adversity is our decision.

We are inspired by stories of men and women who overcame their adverse situations to achieve at high levels. It lifts our hearts and our souls to see someone overcome something which might have been reason for them to stop moving forward. What we don't realize is that there is the potential for a story like that in every one of us. What one man can do, another can do. The problem is, there are too many people waiting for someone else togive them their opportunities. The problem is that there are too many people "majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors."

In my life, I've had two great examples of people overcoming adverse situations to live impacting lives. As I said, my mother was a single parent when to be such was to choose to allow people to look down upon you. Wwe lived in the projects, and we also lived on welfare for awhile when I was younger, up until I was 11. Then my mother decided to go to work as a school bus driver when I went to school. That allowed my parents the financial freedom to move us from the projects to an apartment, and eventually into our own home, and then a better home.

Most importantly, when I was 16 she chose to give her life to Christ, and she chose to repent of all her sins and live her life for Jesus. That afforded her the opportunity to live her life as a child of the King, and it gave her a peace and joy that she had not known. I had to explain to my 20-year old sister the other day that the "Mom" she knew wasn't the same one I had grown up with my first 16 years. My mother had been prone to depression and sadness, not clinical, but her self image was not stellar. After she accepted Christ as her savior however, she changed, and more importantly, God used her to change lives. Especially mine.

So, she could have chosen to stay on welfare, but she chose to work and partner with my father instead to seize the opportunities they could seize. There are a lot of people that I know that made a different choice, people I am know and love and some I am related to, and they have paid the consequences of those choices without fail. There is no easy way. To go back to a different era, we would say that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Even the people that think they are getting a free lunch by accepting government assistance when they are fully capable of working are not really getting a free lunch. They will never be like Abraham Lincoln as long as they continue to make those choices. they will never be respected by their peers as long as they are not willing to exhaust themselves to try and seize all that they can from life like Lincoln did. They will never have resolve like his, or wisdom like his, or self assurance like he had. But hey, they'll have air conditioning.

The other example I had about making intelligent choices was my father. My father is a man with an eighth grade education. He made poor choices when he was younger, and he paid for them by getting in trouble with the law when he was younger. I'll never forget the morning he came to pick me up from work when I was 18 after I had worked third shift at a convenience store. I had just started the job and it was the first time he had picked me up there. When I got in the car and we started to pull away he had this little smile on his face.

After I asked him what that was all about, he related to me that the intersection the store was at was also the same intersection he had flipped a stolen car over at when he was a young teenager. He got away that time, but eventually, his poor choices caught up with him and he was forced to deal with the consequences. Fortunately for him, and me, the consequences were that he joined the United States Marine Corps. It changed his life. And mine.

My father could have chosen differently though. He could have been defiant and spent time in prison instead, but he joined the Corps, and that decision, and other decisions he made over the years have afforded him the opportunities he has had to own cars and houses and boats and go on vacations and all kinds of other things that have added to the quality of his life.

The choices both of my parents made have also had consequences in my life. One night in my early 20's a guy I drove a cab with got shot in the back of the neck in a random act of violence. The two kids didn't even take his money. Thankfully, Joe was spared because the bullet struck a bone and exited his cheek without doing any permanent damage.

It wasn't long after that though that I went to my mother and told her that if I kept making the choices I was making and living life the way I was, that the consequences were that I would be dead before I was 30. I begged her to pay for one year of college. Because my parents had made the choices they had made, they were able to offer me that opportunity. More importantly as it applies to me, my mother chose to introduce the stipulation that I find a Christian college. The consequence of that decision is that my life was radically altered.

There are other consequences as well, and I think they add to the quality of our lives in a way that nothing material ever could. Recently I sent my father a Christmas gift that I thought he would really enjoy. Along with that I also sent him a letter which I had written.

My father and I have not always seen eye to eye about everything, and we have had some very difficult periods in our relationship. I had been thinking though, of all the choices he had made, and how they had impacted my life. Because of that letter, my father knows exactly where he stands with me, and I believe I touched him. Had he made different choices, he might have gotten a very different letter.

Both he and my mother both realized some of those ancillary "consequences" due to the decisions they had made. They both were well respected and well loved. They both enjoyed the satisfaction of having lived lives which touched other people in many ways. Because they both were always so willing to do the right thing, they were well respected and well loved, and that was communicated to them time after time.

Because my father was an honorable man, he was able to get a letter like the one I am going to end with. if he had made different choices he might have gotten a letter with a different tone, or even no letter at all...

Dear Dad,

Well, it's only about 20 days past Christmas or so and I am finally getting these things in the mail. I have a lot of excuses, but mostly it's Nancy's fault. If she hadn't divorced me then I would still be able to get things like this done on time. I guess I need a good woman back in my life. Problem is, they all annoy me, at least the ones I've met recently. I'm holding out for the one that doesn't want me to change, doesn't look at me as the answer to all of their problems (because I have enough of my own I need the answer to) and is capable of taking care of business on their own and doesn't need me to do everything for them. In short, I'm probably
going to die alone.

So actually, I was holding off on sending this gift to you because I wanted to write you a letter to go along with it. I watched this series myself last fall and it really moved me, and I thought of you all the way through it. I'm not sure if you are familiar with this story, but Band of Brothers is the true story of Able Company in the 101st Airborne Division as told by actual members. As I sat and watched the story of what these men went through, from D-Day right up until the end of the war, I couldn't help but get emotional over the sacrifices these men and their
families made for our country. When I thought about it even more and considered that most of these guys were about as old as Sarah is now, it impacted me even more. When I was the same age as these guys all I seemed to do was waste time. They were being shelled by artillery.

I wanted you to see it though, because while I was watching it, I thought of you. Dad, I just wanted you to know how much I respect you and love you. Throughout the last 39 years or so, we have definitely butted heads with one another, and I know I share most of the blame for those times we did. There never has been a time though when I wasn't proud to have you as my dad. This is no slam to any of the other men in our family, but in my eyes, I think probably in most of our eyes, Bray and Belanger, you are the best of us all.

Dad, I don't know what you did in the Marine Corps other than demolitions, but I do know that you were in Cuba, and Gitmo isn't supposed to be all beaches and surfing. I also know that you came home from the Corp in 1974 and immediately stepped into the role of being my father, and I remember, I really still do, how excited I was when you adopted me and I took your name. Like any parent, there was a learning curve, but you never gave up trying no matter how much of a disappointment I have been throughout the years. And we don't have to pull punches, I have screwed up along the way.

I also remember that YOU earned our way out of the projects. Not only that, you did it by getting up and going to work day after day, without fail, to a job that most people couldn't do. As I look back now and have the benefit of time to help me out, that means even more to me. The last time I checked, xxxxxxxxxx was dealing heroin, and he was dealing it to his cousin xxxxxxxx. The last time I checked that kid xxxxxxxxxxx I played basketball with was in jail for life for shooting another kid that I went to Kennedy with. In fact, the last time I checked, all of the
kids that I grew up with were either still living in the projects, dealing or using drugs, or dead.

Dad, you didn't jump into a burning building to save me, but what you did was even more significant. You didn't rescue me from the fate my childhood friends have found by doing one thing. You rescued me day after day, over a period of decades, as a matter of will. You earned me the opportunities that I have had. You carried us all on your back, and you did it while the whole time becoming a better and better man. I was watching. I learned. I wanted to be just like you in a lot of ways. I am just like you in a lot of ways.

And that wasn't the only time you saved me either. When Nancy became frustrated with me because I lacked a work ethic and wanted me to leave, I had your example to fall back on. I may not have had a lot of experience with hard work, but I had certainly seen it done. Mostly though, I knew that you just did what you had to do to get by, no matter what the cost, and I learned that from you. It was as much of a surprise to me that when I started roofing they gave me my own truck. Even though the change ultimately didn't save my marriage, when Nancy did leave and I felt like just laying down and dying, I kept going to work day after day because Sarah
needed me to. I would never have been able to do that without your example to follow.

So, as I sat and watched these videos, all of these things went through my head. I thought of the sacrifices that you had made along the way to put food on the table, clothes on my back and money in my pocket. I thought of all of the things that I have in my life, and how much I owe you for everything, and I just wanted to tell you, even though this letter barely begins to convey to you everything I feel, how much I appreciate everything you did for us. I wanted to tell you that, as I approach my own 40th birthday, the example you provided helped me to get here,
and the struggles you went through help me appreciate everything I have.

I have a lot of things I want to say actually, but I could write for days and not feel like I was doing a good enough job of saying everything I want to say. I'll just finish with two things then. I'm always having to explain to people that you aren't my biological father, because I'm one of the few people I know that refers to their step dad as just Dad. That's because I don't know how to think of you any other way. More specifically, and perhaps a better way to explain what I
am trying to say, the other day Sarah asked me if I had any idea if I knew who my "real father" was. I told her I really didn't have any idea, but that isn't really true. I know exactly who my "real" father is. His name is Vernon Bray, and I am proud to call him Dad. I am proud to be his son.

I love you Dad, I hope you enjoy the video.



1 comment:

Doug B said...

Wow -- thanks for sharing that, brother. What a powerful testimony to the influence of faithful (and faith-filled) parents on the lives of their children.