Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Relationships Matter

How the Breakdown of One Relationship Changed the Course of World History

Just 3,800 votes in California – one vote per precinct – separated the winner and the loser of the closest and most important Presidential election of the 20th century.  The outcome can be traced right back to the breakdown of a single relationship between two great men on one fateful day in August, 1916.  It can be reasonably argued that the consequences of the 1916 election played a large role in Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany.

In 1916, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, one of America’s most educated Presidents, was up for re-election after a fruitful first term.  Among his many accomplishments, Wilson had reformed the United States' chaotic banking system, creating the Federal Reserve System.  He had removed international taxes and tariffs that had crippled our economy, and spear-headed the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and badly-needed child labor reform legislation.

The Republicans of 1916 drafted an intellectual equal to Wilson in the person of Charles Evans Hughes.  The son of a Baptist minister, Hughes was a child prodigy and brilliant lawyer.  By his early 40s he had established a solid reputation as an honest reformer through cleaning up rampant corruption in the utilities and insurance industries of his day.

In 1907, at age 45, Hughes was elected Governor of New York, defeating the father of “yellow journalism,” the venerable William Randolph Hearst.  Three years later, President Taft appointed Hughes to the U.S. Supreme Court.   In stark contrast to Wilson’s overt presidential ambitions, Hughes had not sought out ANY of these positions – Governor, Supreme Court Justice, or President

With great reluctance, Hughes resigned from the Supreme Court to become the Republican standard-bearer in the 1916 Presidential election.

Meanwhile, World War I raged in Europe.  President Wilson pledged neutrality, with the goal of keeping the United States uninvolved as long as possible.  In fact, the theme of the 1916 Democratic convention was “He kept us out of war.”  Hughes, on the other hand, advocated a more proactive stance with an earlier entry into the war. 

History records that Wilson narrowly defeated Hughes by 23 Electoral College votes in the national Presidential election. With its 13 Electoral College votes, California turned out to be the pivotal state.

Early in the campaign, Hughes had what was considered an insurmountable lead over Wilson in the state of California.  However, one fateful day in August, 1916, Charles Evans Hughes chose not to meet with Hiriam Johnson, the Republican Governor, while both of them were staying at the very same hotel. 

Why did Hughes snub Johnson?  Perhaps it was hot. Perhaps Hughes was tired.  Perhaps Hughes was irritated by Johnson’s more liberal version of Republicanism. Perhaps it was an attack of Satan himself.  For whatever reason, Hughes chose not to meet with Johnson that day, and Johnson took great offense.  The slight was widely reported by newspapers in California.  And as a consequence of this solitary event, Johnson refused to help Hughes in California, and Hughes lost substantial voter support in the state.

Most historians believe that if Hughes had not slighted Johnson, Hughes would have carried California as originally predicted.   California’s 13 Electoral College votes would have made Charles Evans Hughes the 29th President of the United States (13 more for Hughes, 13 less for Wilson, results in a victory of +3 for Hughes.)

One event, one relationship breakdown, one vote per precinct in California, monumentally changed the course of history – for the ENTIRE World.   


In his second term, as part of the conclusion of World War I, Wilson championed his pet idea, the League of Nations, the precursor to today’s United Nations.  Unfortunately, because the United States was such a late entrant to World War I, Wilson was in very weak negotiating position.  In addition, the key Allied leaders felt no personal warmth towards Wilson.  He was viewed as arrogant and inflexible, personality changes undoubtedly caused, in part, by “mini-strokes” he periodically suffered, starting at least as early as 1912.

In spite of his lack of influence with the victorious allied countries, Wilson was utterly determined to win international support for his beloved League of Nations.  Unable to influence world leaders towards the value of the League on its own merits, Wilson decided to make a deal with the devil.

Against his better judgment and his own principles, Wilson agreed to support the French position for massive reparations on the German people - a crushing tax to punish the Germans for the destruction of World War I.  In return for Wilson’s support for these unworkable reparations, France and the other key Allied leaders agreed to include the League of Nation as an integral part of the Treaty of Versailles.

Historians unanimously agree that this massive tax on the German people ruined the German economy of the 1920s.  The human suffering this caused was the single greatest factor that fueled Adolph Hitler’s meteoric rise to power in Germany.

Sadly, perhaps in part due to diminished judgment from the mini-strokes, Wilson refused to include a single Republican senator in the process of negotiating the Versailles treaty.  As a consequence, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to approve both the Treaty as well as Wilson’s League of Nations.

This enraged Wilson.  He decided to conduct a national tour designed to garner public support for the League of Nations.  During that arduous trip, Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke in September, 1919. 

For 17 months he lay paralyzed, near death, unable to see even his own cabinet members, much less the Vice President. In one of the most closely guarded secrets of modern times, virtually all of the United States government had no idea how gravely ill their President was.  The nation simply drifted under the stewardship of Wilson’s wife, Edith, who many historians consider to be American’s first female President.   Edith Wilson’s only formal training was in music.

In December, 1920, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work on the League of Nations.  He was too ill to personally accept the award.   Less than five years later, he died, a recluse, embittered by the knowledge that his greatest dream, the League of Nations, remained unapproved by the United States Senate.

Had Charles Evan Hughes won the 1916 Presidential Election, how might have history been different?

As one of the few honest Cabinet members of the corrupt Harding administration that succeeded Wilson, Secretary of State Hughes worked to reduce the onerous reparations required of Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. This effort turned out to be “too little, too late,” but it does show that Hughes would have been unlikely to support the French in punishing the German people so ruinously in the first place.

Plus, with Charles Evans Hughes as President, the United States would have become involved in World War I much sooner.  Doing so would have greatly increased the United States’ stature at the conclusion of the war, because the United States would have been viewed as more of an equal partner in the struggle.   And as his subsequent service would show, in contrast to Wilson, Hughes clearly had all his mental faculties and was quite winsome.  In fact, about two years after the Treaty of Versailles, Hughes negotiated a worldwide naval disarmament treaty that made the United States the dominant naval power in the world for over a decade.

Later, Hughes served with distinction as a World Court Judge.  In 1930, President Hoover reappointed Hughes to the Supreme Court, this time as Chief Justice.  Legal historians consider Hughes to be one of the nation’s finest Chief Justices. Hughes served during pivotal years of the Supreme Court’s history, when the high court moved from being merely a defender of property rights, to defending the civil liberties Americans enjoy today.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Hughes cast the deciding votes in favor of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, an agenda actively resisted by four of the Supreme Court’s nine justices.  Had Hughes not supported FDR, today the Supreme Court would have 15 members. Expecting another Supreme Court defeat, Roosevelt had planned to add six more progressive justices to deal with an obstinate Supreme Court that had blocked most of his key depression-fighting job creation programs.

A more reasonable Treaty of Versailles, negotiated by a more powerful and flexible President, would have likely prevented much postwar suffering in Germany, suffering which ultimately swept Hitler to power. (A lesson heeded by the Marshall Plan after World War II.)  

These facts of history are a powerful example of the so-called “butterfly effect.”  The breakdown of a relationship, which occurred in one fateful evening in August, 1916, arguably set in motion a chain of events that, in the end, brought Adolph Hitler to power. 

Food for thought for all of us, as we consider relationship-making (or relationship-breaking) events that occur almost daily in each of our lives.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Venezuela - Which Came First: Socialism or Ruin?

Causality matters.

Here, in brief, is an economic history of Venezuela.  

1950: An upper-middle-income-country, 4th richest per capita:

GDP per Person
Top Seven Countries

(1) United States     $9,573
(2) Switzerland        $8,939
(3) New Zealand      $8,495
(4) Venezuela          $7,424
(5) Australia            $7,218
(6) Canada              $7,047
(7) Sweden             $6,738

Yep, you read that right - Venezuela was #4 in the world economically, ahead of both Canada and Australia.

So what is Venezuela like today?

Today, Venezuela is in ruins. It is one of the few Latin American countries to have had, not one, but two "lost decades:" the 1980s and the 1990s. Never really able to recover from currency and debt crises in the 1980s, Venezuela plunged further into economic chaos in the 1990s. 

Inflation remained indomitable and among the highest in the region, economic growth continued to be volatile and oil-dependent, growth per capita stagnated, unemployment rates surged, and public sector deficits endured despite continuous spending cutbacks. 

Real wages today are almost 70 percent below what they were 20 years ago. In eight of the last 12 years, Venezuela suffered some sort of economic emergency-a critical fiscal deficit, a banking crisis, a currency crisis, an economic recession or a combination of these. 

More than two-thirds of the population now live below poverty levels. A recent report estimates that, for an average Venezuelan with 12 years of schooling, the probability of ending up poor is 18.5 percent, up from 2.4 percent only a decade ago. Education-a common antidote against poverty-has simply ceased to work. (emphasis added).

I agree.  It's terrible, isn't it?

Only one problem.  Those words were written by Javier Corrales in 1999, not 2019.  
(OK, I lied.) 

Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999 after the December, 1998 elections.

Corrales, writing in Harvard's Review of Latin America:

Essentially, Venezuela has been stuck in an ax-relax-collapse cycle of reform. Each cycle begins with the eruption of an economic crisis, to which the government responds by implementing harsh cutbacks and adjustments-the "ax." After some initially positive results, the reforms soon lose momentum, becoming either haphazardly implemented or prematurely abandoned-the "relax" stage. This culminates in yet another economic crisis-the "collapse." With the launch of "Agenda Venezuela" in 1996, Venezuela embarked on its fourth such reform cycle since 1979, succumbing shortly after to the same pattern of relaxation and collapse. 

The main difference was that, this time, the economic collapse (in 1998) was the worst ever.

The economic collapse of 1998 was the final straw that propelled Chavez to power. 

It wasn't clever words, or insidious propaganda, a leftist university system, or even a popular politician that bought socialism to Venezuela.  A substantial  group of Chavez's 1998 voters valued democracy.  And for several years, Chavez's approval ratings were even worse than Donald Trump's!

Chavez came to power because Venezuela had already collapsed.  His country was already in ruins, and voters were desperate for better answers. (Answers he clearly did NOT provide. As I think is the case with socialists in our country.)  

Ruin came before socialism.  And yes, it has gotten desperately worst since Chavez and Maduro:

“We are barely surviving,” Perez said of himself and his wife. “If prices keep rising, I don’t know what we’re going to eat.”

As Venezuela’s economy crumbles, daily life has become a constant struggle, consisting of waiting in line for food and stretching a minuscule wage that each day buys fewer goods.
The country's monthly minimum wage of 1,307,000 bolĂ­vars — around $6.03 on the black market — is enough for two cartons of eggs, a kilo (about 2.2 pounds) of cornmeal and a box of pasta, or two liters of milk, four cans of tuna and a loaf of bread.
With extreme food shortages, hunger and malnutrition are on the rise. But even when food is available in stores, the average salary is not enough to feed a family.
So why was Venezuela already in ruin in 1999, before socialism? 

Twenty-two Ph.D's did a tedious study on this question. The result is a 450-page scholarly study:  Venezuela Before Chavez   After careful research on a dozen possibilities, the final regression shows the causes of Venezuela's collapse were as follows:
% of Cause
#1: Democratic institutions decline / collapse
#2: Export / trade flexibility & openness
#3: Financial sector failure / contraction
#4: Human capital (education)
#5: Government overspending / public debt

(* p<.10, **p<.05, ***p<.01)
pp. 428-429 - like items consolidated

(Reminder to the non-statistical people of the world:  The point of doing a regression is to establish causality.)

So which came first in Venezuela, socialism or ruin?  

The facts of history are very clear - it was ruin.  

Which begs the question:  How do we best stop socialism?  In my brain, I am going to work for, and vote for, solutions that mitigate the problems above.

Through all my work with Christian schools, I am going to work to raise up great citizens of our great democracy.  I am going to judge politicians by whether their actions support democracy, and vote accordingly.  I do NOT espouse the theory that both political parties are morally equivalent at any given point in our history. 

I will support economic policies that prosper our nation.  I will support politicians who support policies that prosper our nation. I will not support those who do not.

I will support those who advocate reasonable government oversight of the financial sector.  I believe that history and economics will both conclude that Paul Volcker had it right, and Alan Greenspan had it wrong.

I will spend the rest of my life working with the education of young people, giving them a purpose that will propel them towards the highest levels of accomplishment, and helping those who help them.  That is the essence of the Daniel Generation.

And finally, I do not support the current overspending of our government, and the huge debt we incurred during times of prosperity, or for ill-advised warsOur children will pay a grave cost for our foolishness.

Because corruption impacted almost all of these institutions in Venezuela, as they do in the United States, I will work for, and vote for, politicians who avoid, and fight against, corruption in our country.

Because in the balance of government regulating capitalism, socialism goes too far.  

But, because causality matters, I am going to spend the rest of my life working to avoid the conditions that lead to socialism in the first place.     

Can I be blunt?  Simply attacking socialism or voting on that basis will NOT be good enough to prevent it. Why are millennials supporting socialism more than previous generations?  

A key reason is old fashioned good jobs - or more specifically, the lack thereof.  (In fact, a worldwide survey by the Gallup organization found that the #1 predictor of happiness in life is having a good job.) Read and study:  Understand the economic realities of young people.  

There is one absolute certainty here:  Young people will live longer than older people.  We need to help them all we can (Matthew 25:35).  Criticizing or ridiculing their views might feel good, but it accomplishes nothing (James 2:14-18).  

By supporting policies and strategies that help young people, we truly help America be great (Matthew 20:20-28.)

Wise Advice From a Modern Day Daniel

Chief Justice John Roberts, commencement address for Cardigan Mountain School, a 6 to 9 grade boarding school in New Hampshire, June 3, 2017.  Graduates included Robert's adopted son, Jack. 

Thank you very much.
Rain, somebody said, is like confetti from heaven. So even the heavens are celebrating this morning, joining the rest of us at this wonderful commencement ceremony. Before we go any further, graduates, you have an important task to perform because behind you are your parents and guardians. Two or three or four years ago, they drove into Cardigan, dropped you off, helped you get settled and then turned around and drove back out the gates. It was an extraordinary sacrifice for them. They drove down the trail of tears back to an emptier and lonelier house. They did that because the decision about your education, they knew, was about you. It was not about them. That sacrifice and others they made have brought you to this point. But this morning is not just about you. It is also about them, so I hope you will stand up and turn around and give them a great round of applause. Please.
Now when somebody asks me how the remarks at Cardigan went, I will be able to say they were interrupted by applause. Congratulations, class of 2017. You’ve reached an important milestone. An important stage of your life is behind you. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you it is the easiest stage of your life, but it is in the books. While you’ve been at Cardigan, you have all been a part of an important international community as well. And I think that needs to be particularly recognized.
[Roberts gave brief remarks in other languages.]
Now around the country today at colleges, high schools, middle schools, commencement speakers are standing before impatient graduates. And they are almost always saying the same things. They will say that today is a commencement exercise. ‘It is a beginning, not an end. You should look forward.’ And I think that is true enough, however, I think if you’re going to look forward to figure out where you’re going, it’s good to know where you’ve been and to look back as well. And I think if you look back to your first afternoon here at Cardigan, perhaps you will recall that you were lonely. Perhaps you will recall that you were a little scared, a little anxious. And now look at you. You are surrounded by friends that you call brothers, and you are confident in facing the next step in your education.
It is worth trying to think why that is so. And when you do, I think you may appreciate that it was because of the support of your classmates in the classroom, on the athletic field and in the dorms. And as far as the confidence goes, I think you will appreciate that it is not because you succeeded at everything you did, but because with the help of your friends, you were not afraid to fail. And if you did fail, you got up and tried again. And if you failed again, you got up and tried again. And if you failed again, it might be time to think about doing something else. But it was not just success, but not being afraid to fail that brought you to this point.
Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Now commencement speakers are also expected to give some advice. They give grand advice, and they give some useful tips. The most common grand advice they give is for you to be yourself. It is an odd piece of advice to give people dressed identically, but you should — you should be yourself. But you should understand what that means. Unless you are perfect, it does not mean don’t make any changes. In a certain sense, you should not be yourself. You should try to become something better. People say ‘be yourself’ because they want you to resist the impulse to conform to what others want you to be. But you can’t be yourself if you don’t learn who are, and you can’t learn who you are unless you think about it.
The Greek philosopher Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ And while ‘just do it’ might be a good motto for some things, it’s not a good motto when it’s trying to figure out how to live your life that is before you. And one important clue to living a good life is to not to try to live the good life. The best way to lose the values that are central to who you are is frankly not to think about them at all.
So that’s the deep advice. Now some tips as you get ready to go to your new school. Other the last couple of years, I have gotten to know many of you young men pretty well, and I know you are good guys. But you are also privileged young men. And if you weren’t privileged when you came here, you are privileged now because you have been here. My advice is: Don’t act like it.
When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school. Another piece of advice: When you pass by people you don’t recognize on the walks, smile, look them in the eye and say hello. The worst thing that will happen is that you will become known as the young man who smiles and says hello, and that is not a bad thing to start with.
You’ve been at a school with just boys. Most of you will be going to a school with girls. I have no advice for you.
The last bit of advice I’ll give you is very simple, but I think it could make a big difference in your life. Once a week, you should write a note to someone. Not an email. A note on a piece of paper. It will take you exactly 10 minutes. Talk to an adult, let them tell you what a stamp is. You can put the stamp on the envelope. Again, 10 minutes, once a week. I will help you, right now. I will dictate to you the first note you should write. It will say, ‘Dear [fill in the name of a teacher at Cardigan Mountain School].’ Say: ‘I have started at this new school. We are reading [blank] in English. Football or soccer practice is hard, but I’m enjoying it. Thank you for teaching me.’ Put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and send it. It will mean a great deal to people who — for reasons most of us cannot contemplate — have dedicated themselves to teaching middle school boys. As I said, that will take you exactly 10 minutes a week. By the end of the school year, you will have sent notes to 40 people. Forty people will feel a little more special because you did, and they will think you are very special because of what you did. No one else is going to carry that dividend during your time at school.
Enough advice. I would like to end by reading some important lyrics. I cited the Greek philosopher Socrates earlier. These lyrics are from the great American philosopher, Bob Dylan. They’re almost 50 years old. He wrote them for his son, Jesse, who he was missing while he was on tour. It lists the hopes that a parent might have for a son and for a daughter. They’re also good goals for a son and a daughter. The wishes are beautiful, they’re timeless. They’re universal. They’re good and true, except for one: It is the wish that gives the song its title and its refrain. That wish is a parent’s lament. It’s not a good wish. So these are the lyrics from Forever Young by Bob Dylan:
May God bless you and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young
May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay forever young
May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young
Thank you.

I love this man.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Teenage Suicide: An Open Letter to My Son

Dear Zachary,

I am so sorry for you and many others who knew the recent graduate of your school who committed suicide. My deepest sympathies to all of you.

Since I have been working with Christian Pk – 12 schools since 2006, I would like to give you my take on four practical things I would do to try to deal with this problem, if I was in leadership at your school.

Big Idea #1: How Public Should We Be About Suicides?

First, I think I agree you that the grown-ups in charge do need to deal with it, but I’m not 100% sure about that. I am grateful for the 2-3 teachers of yours who brought it up. It is a very difficult call for a Principal or Superintendent to announce something like this publicly, or do a moment of silence for someone who committed suicide. I am not sure what my school clients would have done for a recent graduate like this.

In this case, it might have been better to bring it up publicly because so many people seemed to know this person. If that wasn’t obvious at first, re-evaluating later in the day (as clearly emotions were getting far worse.) Be aware however, that there is also research out there that making suicides too public can result in "copy cats," so I do not think this issue is cut and dried. And that’s the hard call for your leaders at school.

As we talked about at Freddy’s, we do students no favors when we try to protect them from all of the challenges of life. In fact, we clearly weaken them by over protecting them. Troubles and challenges will come to us all sooner or later. For example, people we know will die in unfortunate ways and unexpected times. It is imperative on the adults to use every occasion to coach young adults like you through those times, so that you are stronger for next time. (Or as I so often hear, we have to prepare you for road, rather than prepare the road for you.)

That the adults use teaching moments like this is particularly important for your generation. What you may not realize is that your generation looks for answers from their own peers much more than my generation ever did. As a teenager, I hung out with my parents, and grandparents, uncles, and adults of all kinds. I learned a lot, and that wisdom has become a key part of who I am. And I did talk about the hard things with them. My father and I had many deep conversations. But often that was because I initiated it.

Big Idea #2: Setting Expectations about How Life Really Is

I am very grateful for our Pastor stating the hard reality – repeatedly - that no one owes us anything. I am not owed a wife, a job, a house, income, or happiness from anyone, and neither are you. No one owes you friends, or a wife, or college, or a great job out of college, or the esteem and respect of anyone. The world doesn’t owe you or me any of these things.

What that means to all of us is that if I don’t have friends, I need to be a friend. If I don’t have a spouse, I need to find one. If I don’t have a job, I need to find one. If I can’t find a job, I need to create one. If I can’t get into a good college, I have to work harder at preparing myself to be admitted to one.  If I don't have purpose, I need to explore enough things to find one.

If I am not thought well of, I need to work hard to learn a skill and get good at doing something. The world owes me exactly nothing – it’s up to me, with God’s help.

How this relates to suicide is that if things are not working out well, we should not be surprised. At all. Jesus said in this life we will have many troubles. If it were me, a realistic way to impart this idea to your peers in high school is to bring adult overcomers into the classroom, at least 2-3 times a month.

By an overcomer, I mean someone who found a way to make life work after tragedy. A public example of that is Joe Biden, who is considering a run for President. As I mentioned, I appreciate his humility, even though I do not agree with all his opinions. He lost his first wife and daughter in a tragic car accident, and one of his sons just a few years ago. The last I read he is the most popular Democrat for the 2020 election, although he hasn't announced he is even running.

While your school or any school would never have Joe Biden stop by, there are many overcomers like him in our midst. I have met so many in my travels. I think the administration of any school would be so wise to bring them into the classrooms regularly. They can be inspiring examples of "just staying alive" (as Pastor says) in the midst of real and sometimes unthinkable tragedy.

I think in a school setting students need to have the expectation that not every teacher is going to be their friend. And frankly, if they want the teacher to be their friend, they need to be friendly towards the teacher. I cannot imagine the difficulty of getting to know 100-120 names every year, and sometimes each semester. And that is the very first step to any friendship – I struggle with 20 at the average Christian school seminar I do, and I’m an extrovert.  
And then there is the introverts, easily 1/3 of the population, who find forming new friendships energy draining. If you want to be friendly with that teacher, ask yourself what you could do to help them conserve their energy. Maybe little things, before or after class. 

To be fair, your school does not owe you the friendship of the teacher. If you want that, you need to be vulnerable and go for it. And you need to recognize that even if you go for it, certain teachers may never be that great of a friend to you. But many will. And that is just how life works. Vulnerability means - I am going to try, but it may not work out. The only certainty is that it won’t work out if I do not try at all.

A book that changed my life inexorably for the better was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I wish every one of your classmates – and you – would read it.

As far as you or you classmates go, it does not matter how rich or poor, stable or unstable, easy or hard your family situation. Here’s reality: The world doesn’t owe you anything. More reality: We serve a big God who is FOR YOU, but even in serving him fully, there will still be problems, trouble, and heartache.  That's part of the earth being cursed to futility.  
Knowing – really knowing – these facts makes it easier to deal with when the troubles come. And they will come.

A final thing I will mention. Do you know that in the last two decades the total number of students killed by a school shooting is about 150? That’s all. I think things like lock-downs drills, which significantly increase student anxiety, are more about what adults want then what students really need. There will be other issues like that as well, but the hard part for you is separating out which is which.  So you honor authority in all circumstances.

That 150 compares to 9,000 teenagers who died of drug overdoses in the last two decades, 4,300 deaths per year due to under age alcohol use, and yes, a huge increase in teen suicide.  We need to put far more energy into preventing tragedy in more likely ways like these, rather than practicing for active shooter situations which are unlikely to happen at your school. I wish schools were more helpful in explaining to students what the real problems are, and dealing with these.

Be aware that the adults in your life will – with the best of intents – add anxiety and stress to your life in ways that in hindsight aren’t necessary.  High stakes testing is one of those areas.  Be aware that more and more colleges are NOT requiring the SAT or ACT in their admission process, for example. You shouldn’t feel stressed out about all that. 

Instead, you should work very hard to have good skills, in writing, and speaking, and collaborating, leading. You need to know how to solve problems, and equally important, what the problem really is.  How to stay peaceful and creative in the midst of the storm. Most of all you should develop a passion and zest for life, and a willingness to try to new things. 

You would hope that the adults in your life would help you be more realistic about the real problems you are likely to face, and what you need to do about it.  But that is not always the case.  All of us to varying degrees have to find a way to determine what really matters for our lives.  Just like you, your teachers and their leaders have both good ideas and bad ideas, and good days and bad days.  So we help each other, and we help ourselves
Big Idea #3: We Need to Help Students Think Better

One of the great breakthroughs in treating depression is understanding how people’s thought processes either worsen or improve depression. A type of counseling called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), arguably the most researched counseling methodology ever, has been proven quite effective in helping people with depression and anxiety. In fact, it’s as good as Prozac and other SSRI’s in helping people become less depressed.

The idea of CBT is to correct inaccurate thought processes – ways of thinking that anxious and depressed people use more often - which causes them to be even more depressed and anxious –using even more of these “cognitive distortions.” This is a vicious downward spiral that can end up in suicide.

Before I talk the thinking patterns themselves, I would like to point out that this topic is not psychobabble mumbo jumbo, but rather is healthy ways of thinking. You are in school, which is all about learning how to think. These patterns can be worked into all sorts of curriculum and lessons. And they should be – for your good, and the good of your classmates.

Teachers can gently correct instances of these as they happen everyday in classrooms at your school. They just have to be able to recognize the negative and positive versions.

By coaching students to think in the positive direction on each of these, a mountain of research clearly says they will be more optimistic, less depressed, and much less likely to be suicidal.

So what are these patterns?

The biggest one you see routinely is emotional reasoning: Letting your feelings guide your interpretation of reality.  Such as: "I feel sad, therefore I must be depressed." Or "I feel anxious, therefore I must be in danger." Or "I feel abused by what you said, therefore you abused me."

I’m quoting directly from the Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianhoff and Haidt, p. 38. Here are the other most common cognitive distortions.

Catastrophizing: Focusing on the worst possible outcome and seeing it as likely.

Overgeneralizing: Perceiving a global pattern of negatives as the basis of a single incident.

Dichotomous Thinking (also know variously as "black and white thinking," or "All or nothing thinking" and "binary thinking") is viewing events or people in all or nothing terms: "I get rejected by everyone." "It was a complete waste of time."

Mind reading: Assuming that you know what people think without having sufficient evident of their thoughts. "He thinks I’m a loser."

Labeling: Assigning global negative traits to yourself or others (often in the service of dichotomous thinking). "I’m undesirable." Or "He’s a rotten person."

Negative filtering: You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. "Look at all the people who don’t like me."

Discounting Positives: Claiming that the positive things you or others do are trivial, so that you can maintain a negative judgement.

Blaming: Focusing on the other person as the source of your negative feelings; you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself.

There’s three really important ideas about cognitive distortions: (1) They are cognitive, which means that they are learned and unlearned. (2) They create downward spirals, resulting in more depression and/or anxiety, and therefore more cognitive distortions, and (3) You can easily find the very same behavior practiced by the adults in your life.

In fact, on (3) I have been on the receiving end of over half of these distortions in the last month alone, in situations where relationships were strained or ruined as a consequence. And that’s face to face. Add social media to the mix, and now it is quite easy to jump to the wrong conclusion, and these kinds of distortions are rampant. I believe this problem is the main reason why people who use social media a lot are both less happy and more depressed. It’s also why you should never work out problems by email or social media, at least if you care about the relationship. Texting is the worse.

Because these are cognitive skills, there is no reason they cannot be taught with the curriculum at hand. You mentioned that in your history class, Christopher Columbus was largely viewed as a bad actor, because of the ways he and his shipmates abused America natives. At the same time, he was a devout Catholic who ended each day on the boat with Vespers. Certainly the Spaniards abused Indians and pillaged South America, at the same time others from Spain sent over 15,000 missionaries to the America’s up to 1820.

With a small number of exceptions (e.g. Hitler), individual people, people groups (e.g. the Jews, minority groups), states, or countries are neither completely evil or completely good.  We are wise to give people the benefit of the doubt, and look for the good in everything. 

This is especially important for ourselves and the ones we love. You and I fit the vast majority of people who are neither completely good or evil.  Consider how even St. Paul writes of himself - calling himself Chief of the Apostles, and Chief of Sinners. (See Romans 7:23,24). Therefore we need to forgive the ones we love and, very importantly from a suicide perspective, we need to forgive ourselves. 

As I write this, you are working on an author critique of Earnest Hemingway. If I was the teacher assigning and critiquing your work, I would emphasize the need for careful research, avoiding preconceived notions (also known as confirmation basis) and an even-handed treatment of the author. This would NOT be a creative writing assignment encouraging the cognitive distortion of mind-reading. I would mark down heavily on that. Conjecture and conclusions would have to be based on solid evidence.

We need to take a lesson from our Biblical heroes. They were far from perfect. Yet that does not negate the good they did, or how God used them. We lose a great deal of the richness and possibilities of life with all or nothing thinking, dichotomous thinking - categorizing people we like as "all good" and people we don't like as "all evil."  And we hurt people and relationships deeply by this kind of thinking. 

On any sort of essay or test, I would be clear up front that this is the list of cognitive distortions I would be marking down on – on every test and every assignment. Employers need employees who have these same soft skills, employees who know how to think realistically. What we are talking about here is clear thinking, with many implications on getting along with people.

These are critical soft skills that will make all the difference in who does and does not get hired after college. (40%+ of recent college grads are unemployed, under-employed, or working in jobs that do not require a college degree.) It’s not lack of technology skills or academics that are the problem, it’s soft skills like this. 

So besides saving lives, teaching and rewarding students to NOT use cognitive distortions will help them to be meaningfully employed when robots and artificial intelligence and overseas competition make good jobs much harder to find.

One more important word about downward spirals that end up in unnecessary and tragic suicides: Loneliness.

Did you know that lonely people are less trusting and more suspicious? As a consequence, they interpret many conversations or looks or actions in a way that makes it harder to form friendships. The few friends they have leave or die, with no new friends taking their place. Thus, the lonelier they become, the harder it is for others to befriend them.  Another downhill spiral that can end up in suicide.

It’s very important that you know that the research clearly shows that communication on social media does NOT solve the loneliness problem. In fact, many experts think it makes it worse. So we have to get off social media and talk to each other face to face.

I was so impressed by one of the schools I worked with, who had their 6th grade girls get the "Squirrelly Girls" talk by a motherly female coach. Essentially: "Over the next few years, young women you think are your friends will go temporarily insane from time to time. They will do things that will be very hurtful to you. Here’s how you handle it ….”

Big Idea #4: Caring, Warmth, Empathy, Friendliness: A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

I was fortunate to attend a college in Seward, Nebraska, where the education professors did a great deal of work on the question of how to help students become more warm, caring, friendly and empathetic. As we talked about, just having people in your classmates’ life who are warm, caring and empathetic would prevent many suicides. That’s obvious.

What’s not so obvious is there is actually much that the leadership in a school can do to increase the level of warmth, caring, friendliness and empathy. It’s called various things, but I will call it facilitator’s training.

So imagine in home room that your teacher gave you a 10 minute task: Write down the top three names of people who are (1) Most caring, (2) Most Empathetic, (3) Most Friendly, and (4) Warmest people you PERSONALLY know. (The ones you would actually go to if you had a problem.) 

If you wanted to be scientific about it, you could ask four more questions, which is: How warm, caring, empathetic and friendly are students at my school, respectively, on a 0 to 10 scale, with 10 being high.

If you tallied up the results, what you would notice is that certain of your classmates’ names would come up over and over again. Others would never come up, to the surprise of no one, except of course that these results are strictly confidential.

If you stopped the whole thing there, the people you would worry about from a suicide perspective are the ones who didn’t show up on any lists. The natural human inclination would be to focus energy and time on them.

There is another choice, however, and that would be to do the counter intuitive thing: Work with the people who already considered the MOST friendly, warm, empathetic and caring by their peers, and help them to be more intentional about it.  In a once a week meeting, over lunch.

So which would rise the friendly, empathetic, caring and warm tide the most? The answer is actually very cut and dried: Do the counter-intuitive thing and work with the relationship champions. While the tickle down theory doesn’t work very well in economics, it works wonders in interpersonal relationships.  

The result is an entire student body that is more friendly, empathetic, warm and caring – more willing to reach even those students who are hard to befriend.  The ones that often need it the most.

That the entire student body is more caring, etc. can be verified easily through the science of it, doing the same survey a couple more times during the school year.

I read through about 1,000+ pages of dissertations, and did the program myself. Concordia did this facilitator program for at least two decades. The man who originated the idea, Bill Langefeld, was good friends with the man who invented the Strength-Finder survey, Don Clifton.


It would be my own cognitive distortion to tell you that your leaders at your school are ignorant and uncaring about what to do about this serious problem. I am sure that they are doing the best that they can.  There is much I do not know about what they are doing behind the scenes.

I have always tried in my life to ask what is possible, rather than catalog all the things that are not possible, and why. So this is my best thoughts right now, perhaps other things will come to mind as we go.

I look forward to talking with you about this when we go ice fishing. If you think it will help at your school, I will send it to the Principal.

I love you Zachary. No matter how bad things get, this too will pass. All we have to do is stay alive.