October 24, 2014

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Have we missed something along the way?

Cynthia DewesA priest told us of being asked to counsel a young man whose life was a mess. The man had related his problems, including impregnating two women outside of marriage and then abandoning them and the resulting children. He actually could not figure out what to do or where he’d gone wrong.

Then I read a book called The Map Thief, the true story of a respected antique map dealer who went criminal after some 20 years in the business. He stole hundreds of irreplaceable early maps of the known world while doing authentic research in university libraries and rare book collections.

Then he sold the maps to other dealers and collectors, trying to make as much money as possible as fast as possible in order to finance his extravagant lifestyle. Among his expenses were the restoration of an entire small town, including houses and businesses, in northern Maine. He was also involved in the construction of a luxurious home on Martha’s Vineyard. When he was finally caught, convicted and jailed, he too wondered why his life had taken this turn.

Really? This is extremely hard for someone of my generation to understand, especially concerning the map thief who was about our age. We think it’s a given, probably tattooed on our souls, that we are responsible for the decisions we make.

And we know that the decisions we make need to be considered beforehand, not jumped into with abandon. We’ve learned over time that there are consequences, good or bad, to our actions.

Personally, I think this phenomenon is often the result of bad, or virtually no, parenting. Apparently no one ever said “no” to some of these people, or told them specifically what was right and what was wrong. They were diverted from bad behavior, not by knowledge of the rules or unpleasant results, but rather by being sympathized with, distracted or rewarded in some way.

Now, I’m not advocating beating up on kids. I think the pro football player who hit his 4-year-old with a stick that caused cuts and bruises should not have kids. But to me, a swat on the behind with one’s hand, or some other mild wake-up call would not be amiss. My mom’s weapon of choice was a fly swatter, which was effective but harmless.

Then, there’s the motivation of plain old greed or warped values, as in the case of the map thief. There’s good reason for insistence on trust and honesty in our dealings with other people and situations because they save us from our worst selves and our creative rationalizations.

But neither am I in favor of rules just for their own sake. Rules must be based upon concern for the welfare of ourselves and others. The “others” is the operative word here because we live today in a time of “me.” Rules should exist because they show us how to live in a way that works for everyone. That is the answer the young man with the messy life and the failed map dealer were looking for.

Somehow, common sense has been lost in the shuffle of time. The young man might have known his girlfriends would be devastated and his children abandoned by his actions. The map dealer should have remembered that his thefts would deprive others of enjoying the antiquities he loved so much.

All the pain could have been avoided. Maybe not avoided easily because sin is so profitable and fun, but you get the idea.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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