Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Do Not Praise Me—Please… Unless I Truly Deserve It

         I read about the discovery of the Higgs boson.  It is as comprehensible as a mortgage-backed securities case.  Einstein explained how gravity works through his theory of relativity.  Higgs boson, I think, explains or at least helps scientists understand how the universe works.  If there were no Higgs boson, there would be no mass, no anything, no us.

         I applaud the scientists for their momentous discovery.  And I praise them for their detection of “dark matter” which is reputed to make up most of the universe.  Just look at the state of the world and this discovery is not all that surprising.

         The Higgs boson discovery, and the date on which it occurred, July 4, 2012, inspired me to search for a principle that explains our moral universe.

         The boson particle is minutely small, yet it was discovered.  In similar fashion I seek to explore the small choices we make every day, the choices that explain and reflect who we are and who we choose to be.  I leave to others to explore the big life-and-death choices most of us never have to make, whether to risk one's life by rushing into a burning building to save lives or by diving into a turbulent river to save a person from drowning.

         It is ironic, if not eerie, that I embarked on this quest because of an incident that occurred on July 4th, the very day of the Higgs boson discovery.

July 4th - I ran, jogged, crawled, the annual 10K-5K race in Pacific Palisades.  I have “run” this race since its inception 35 years ago.  It’s not an easy course.  The “switchbacks” from Sunset Boulevard uphill to the polo field at Will Rogers State Park are grueling, especially if, like me, you are in your eighth decade.  With the passing years, my “time” has been progressively slower.

         But out of the 3,000 or so runners, damned few in their 70’s run the 10K.  To accommodate Father Time, I have “run” the 5K for the past several years.  This year I thought about taking a shot at the 10K.  My knees pleaded with me to drop the idea.  They presented a petition supported by my appendages and organs threatening to boycott such an attempt.  My brain took the petition under submission and opted to make the decision where the 5K wimps, I mean runners, turn back to the finish line, but where the 10K runners forge on for the next 3.2 miles.

         My brain is the most fickle, obstinate organ in my body.  It drives me and everyone else nuts. As soon as I started the race, my brain knew the 10K was not an option.  I could have immediately communicated this decision to my anxious knees, but I waited for the turnaround point to make the definitive decision - “We will do the 5K.”  So I finished the 5K in a little over an embarrassing half-hour.  But for the senior 70’s, the time was not disgraceful.  I waited for my younger jock friends to finish the 10K.

         We looked up our times.  One of my friends won a medal.  And what do you know?  I came in second for my age group.  They give medals to the top three in their age group.  The medal I had won a couple of years ago for coming in third would have company with my new medal.

         At the award ceremony, I climbed the stage at the call of my name and accepted the medal which the judges placed around my neck.  I hammed it up a bit, posed for the photo, and gleefully left the platform.  

         It was on the second or third step off the platform that my glory evaporated with the sweat on my forehead.  The announcer said something like, “And congratulations again to the winners of the 75 to 79 age group.”  But that is the group I will be in next year assuming I live that long. 

         My friends were patting me on the back.  Apparently they did not hear the announcer.  They had to restrain me from going back up on the stage where medals now were being given to the 100 to 105 age group.

         In desperation I ran into the nearby gym and found an official.  I told him I thought I had been awarded a medal that I had not earned.  He looked up my name on the computer.  He found it and immediately congratulated me.  “Good time for a guy born in 1932,” he said.  I told him I was born five years later.  “My parents had no intention of having a kid in the middle of that depression.”

         I removed the medal that hung around my neck and handed it to him.  I asked him if he could find the person who had come in third in the 70 to 74 age group, the age group in which I should have been, the age group in which I, in fact, finished 9 out of 19.  He found the guy who came in fourth in the 75 to 79 age group before I became disqualified.  That person would now receive a medal as the third place winner; the third place finisher would now be second.  I was so relieved.  I felt like I had decided a case that corrected an injustice.

         The hubris that had dissipated from deflating my earlier discovery began to experience a Lazarath-like rebirth, as the official praised me for my honesty and integrity.  Just as I was about to say “Aw-shucks,” hubris went down for the final defeat.  I thanked him for his kind words, but said that I was not deserving of praise merely because I told the truth.

         “Perhaps,” he said, “but few people these days would have turned in the medal.”  Hubris once again tried to raise its moribund head, but I kicked it back down, and then began to take pride in that accomplishment.  This could go on infinitum.  The official and I wished one another a happy Fourth of July, and I, Mr. Middle-of-the-Pack, went home.  I would have much preferred the praise I would have earned if I had come in second.

         This incident got me thinking about judicial decisions.  On occasion judges receive praise for a “courageous decision.”  I would hope that judges decide a case the way they think it should be decided according to the law.  In some cases one could argue that an appropriate break with precedent is courageous.  But even in such a case, the judge is ruling in accordance with guidelines and principles. 

         There are superb decisions, but I hesitate to call them courageous.  A judge who makes an unpopular decision with the public may be reviled.  The experience is not pleasant, but the judge knows she or he is simply doing what the job requires.  Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr is a talented writer of fiction.  In his story “Regarding Hercules,” Judge Mohr brilliantly explores this phenomenon in the July 2012 issue of Advocate, Journal of Consumer Attorneys Associations for Southern California.

         But a judicial decision motivated only to win public acclaim earns the judge a meaningless, undeserved medal.  Trial and appellate judges usually have the opportunity to correct an inadvertent error, to turn in a medal not earned.  This opportunity is available to all of us in the legal profession.  To be conscious of our choices makes it possible for judges and lawyers to win deserved medals of recognition with the public.

         I think I just found the principle I was looking for.  It applies to all people.  It is the succession of small moral choices we make each day that make up the composite of who we are.  It leads to the recognition of our true selves from which we can draw satisfaction, not from other people’s perception of us.

         Having said this, I, like a true scientist, am still skeptical.  I cannot be certain that my principle applies in all situations.  Keeping in mind that absolute rules rarely work, it may be wise to consider my principle together with another principle expressed by Henry David Thoreau:  “Do not be too moral.  You may cheat yourself out of much life.  Aim above morality.  Be not simply good; be good for something.”

No comments: