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Maxed Out

The human factor in a tragedy



Like most men of his generation – born shortly before the Depression and coming of age during World War II – my father always tended to see things in stark shades of black and white, the middle ground full of its shades of grey being a wasteland of lost souls where weak people who couldn’t make up their minds wallowed pointlessly.

I believe he worried a great deal about my well-being and what kind of person I’d grow up to be but I’m pretty sure the concept of my self-esteem was well off his radar. This isn’t an indictment; to the best of my knowledge, the concept of self-esteem hadn’t even been invented and its overriding importance in the voodoo world of pop psychology was yet to be postulated.

Like every other father I knew, he felt it was his duty to explain in no uncertain terms the difference between right and wrong and, if necessary, punctuate the lesson with a briskly applied palm to my offending backside. I’m certain he didn’t consider it abuse or violence but something more along the lines of a memory association trick.

It worked. Whenever I thought of doing whatever I’d gotten swatted for, I tended to avoid doing it again. Besides, there were so many other transgressions to ferret out, so many bold new mistakes to make, why be derivative?

The only other tenet of personal philosophy he felt it was his fatherly duty to pass along was a sense of personal responsibility. Now, this concept is much trickier to both teach and learn. It requires leading by example and driving home a point by means other than direct application of power. And, truth be told, it runs against the grain of human nature.

Given a choice, very few of us want to be responsible. We’d rather someone else clean up our messes, take our blame, bear our consequences and pay our debts. It has always been thus.

Many years ago, long before people wore swank clothes, drove fast cars or skied at number one resorts, life was tougher. In fact, life was such a tribulation, some people decided it would be a whole lot nicer if they had an easy way to absolve themselves of blame for the frequent woes visited upon them. Looking around for some simpler way out than suffering the consequences of their screw-ups, they came up with a grand ceremonial scheme.

On what came to be called the Day of Atonement, they would drag two unsuspecting goats before the high priest. At the altar of the tabernacle, the high priest would cast two lots before the goats, one for the Lord, with whom I assume you’re all at least passingly familiar, and one for Azazel, let’s call him the villain of the piece.

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