While sitting at an outdoor cafe, a very interesting pastime is to “people watch” as folks walk through the public square, wherever you find yourself to be – in the mall, walking across campus, in an urban setting or on a lunch break outside on a nice spring day. This is perfectly normal behavior and can be very entertaining as well. You learn a lot about people through observation, and this is completely normal behavior that society approves of. If that behavior crosses a line into harassing people, stalking people and spying on people – society has every right and expectation to get involved through mandating accepted codes of behavior, handing out restraining orders and enforcing existing or passing new laws.
Behavior can generally be described from two separate perspectives – individual perspectives and societal perspectives – and involves everything we do in our daily lives while in public and at work. As individuals, we are always observing other people’s behaviors, and through those observations we assess if that behavior is deemed acceptable and appropriate within the context the behavior occurs. Society has a vested interest in both public and private behavior when it comes to protecting individual rights and maintaining and protecting the health and welfare of all its individuals. The difference between individual and societal perspectives concerning people’s behavior, is one of degree – the individual can observe and report behavior that is inappropriate, and society can judge, restrict and stop behavior deemed to be against the public good. The dividing lines and boundaries between the rights and responsibilities of individuals and society often are matters of disagreement – various shades of gray – and disputes are often very difficult to settle.
We consider ourselves to be a “free people” – but how free is free – and exactly where our personal freedom becomes an imposition on others is often in dispute. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, the text of the second section of the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is often informally translated into lay terms by average citizens as, “I can do anything I want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” But who is the interpreter of the behavior and its effects on others? Is it the person who is committing the behavior at question, the person who considers themselves to be affected by it, or is it society as a whole that determines certain standards and sets the rules that we are to live by?
If a driver doesn’t wear a seat belt or a motorcycle helmet, does society have the right, or responsibility, to outlaw this behavior – especially if it is paying the medical expenses and salaries of rescue personnel who must respond after an accident occurs?
If the cigarette smoke from smoking in your apartment or condo is pulled through a common ventilation system in the building, can society ban that behavior from affecting other units within the same building?
Should society protect children and the elderly from potentially abusive situations?
Can or should society mandate immunizations, school curriculum and standards, emission standards, and gun laws?
Should society protect the lives of the most innocent among us, the unborn – and provide them with the rights and life that everyone else deserves?
Where does our or someone else’s freedom end and the rights of society begin? Is that line fixed and static, or is it movable and pliable from issue to issue and from region to region?
Is marriage a contract, a civil benefit, a religious expression, a historical carry-over from a different era? Can the rights of marriage be transferred to anyone or are marriage rights a benefit that society gives to only certain members for the future benefit of children which need extra protection due to their fragile state in life? If the definition of marriage is changeable or variable, will it morph into something completely unrecognizable over time into a caricature of what it once was? How are we to determine, as a society what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior?
I believe that society needs to take individual issues and distill them into their fundamental basic elements and decide based on moral, ethical and legal aspects of the fundamental issues:
If society has a reasonable expectation of paying a cost resulting from a behavior (for medical expenses and rescue personnel) then society has the right to establish laws that mandate behavior to limit exposure to harmful outcomes based on that behavior.
Society has a right to expect an educated population and to provide schools and raise funding for them, but not the right to mandate how and what students are to learn or think.
The most helpless members of society, those who can’t help themselves, require extra protection from society because it is the right thing to do morally: the unborn, children, the sick and the elderly. Life is always precious, in all of its forms and needs to be protected: the unborn, humans, animals, marine life and in many respects plants – in the form of nature preserves. When an issue is brought up, the weight of the consideration always has to fall on protecting life. Even livestock, raised for the sole purpose of consumption, need to be treated to humane living conditions.
The Constitution provides for the right for individuals to bear arms, so gun laws are not constitutional. Laws concerning the actions of gun owners and the illegal use of guns can be enforced however, because individuals have the right to protect themselves just as society has the expectation and right to be protected from gun violence.
Marriage should be broken down into two fundamental rights – religious expression and the social benefits “contract” of marriage. Any two people should be allowed to join together in a “civil union” in order to secure the rights and benefits that society decides are to be given to couples that are committed to each other. Society has the right to limit this to simply two individual adults, and to allow them certain social benefits that marriage brings. To award social benefits to only certain individuals based on specific gender combinations and not to others is discriminatory and wrong. Every committed couple should have a civil contract that bestows the rights and responsibilities that society extends to any committed couple – civil union or marriage. Religious expression is a separate matter, and anyone that wishes to include a religious expression into a marriage, as defined by their faith, can do so in a secondary forum of the religion of their choosing. Faith and belief in a religion is a personal choice and an expression some couples choose to pursue. The religious ceremony is secondary to society’s proper jurisdiction over contracts and social benefits awarded to committed couples.
There is an on-going conflict between Christians, other religious groups, and people without religious affiliation as to the direction society should take. The Constitution forbids a “state religion” and provides for both the “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion.” Christians should take the view of being “in the world, but not being of the world.” We can’t dictate values to other groups, just as we don’t want other groups or religions to dictate their beliefs or values on us. Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” As individuals we participate in the electoral process and have the right and duty to promote causes and values that we believe in. Christians as a whole do not have the right to impose our values on others – if we can’t get them passed in the voting booths across the country.
A Christian has the greatest impact in this world through demonstrating God’s love by our actions, rather than through a loud protesting voice. By living our values in love, the secular world will see our values through the way we live – and from a changed heart accept them for their own. Love will always do more to change hearts – and it is from changed hearts that people will choose life and choose to adopt God’s values as their own – as they see it demonstrated through us. The greatest problem for the Christian community is that the secular world doesn’t see the way we live as any different than theirs – except perhaps for driving to church once a week.
As individuals, we observe other people and their behaviors, and it is often very difficult not to critique their actions as we observe them in action. It is interesting to note that our health “vision” is 20/20 when observing other people – their lifestyle, their healthy choices, their unhealthy choices, and their addictions – but we are often “blind” to our own. It’s all a matter of perspective – health perspective that is. It is always harder to critique ourselves objectively. More often than not we are either too hard on ourselves or we live in a state of denial and rationalizations that just don’t stand up to reason.
Unhealthy lifestyles and unhealthy life choices are easy to spot in others – too easy in fact. What we don’t see are the underlying issues that provide a foundation and support for the unhealthy behavior or addiction:
People who smoke often cough, hack and wheeze their way through the day, and it’s obvious that they have pulmonary issues. When they go outside on a smoke break we can only shake our heads and ask ourselves why – it’s obvious to anyone that they are slowly killing themselves through their smoking. What we don’t see is the physical addictive biology of the nicotine, and how hard it is for them to overcome it.
Alcoholics clearly rationalize their drinking while manipulating the people in their lives in an attempt to portray their drinking as a normal social behavior, and deny that they have a problem. We know that they are destroying their own life as well as the lives that are close to them. What we don’t see is the psychological and biological need for alcohol that fuels the addiction, and how hard it is for them to walk away from it.
In the grocery store we may see someone who is obese and whose cart is full of poor food choices – laden with sugar, calories and high cholesterol food. We know that diabetes and a potential heart attack is only waiting to happen. What we don’t see is the psychological loneliness that feeds this addiction to calories – and how hard it must be to feel good about yourself.
A glance at the extremely thin figure of a woman tells us instinctively that she isn’t eating enough, and could very possibly be anorexic. We resist the urge to tell her to eat something, anything – because her health is threatened and she is wasting away. What we don’t see is the psychological burden of poor self image and low esteem, and the inner turmoil of attempting to live up to artificial appearance standards seemingly imposed on her by a cruel and callus society.
We see a drug addict, strung out and needing their next fix, and we say to ourselves that they better get their act together or they won’t live much longer. What isn’t visible is their past history and the possible abuse, mistreatment, poor decisions or bad luck they endured in their lives – succumbing to peer pressure, cast out by family or left vulnerable in an impartial society without anyone to guide them back to safety.
The list of addictions and unhealthy lifestyle choices continues almost without end: psychotic behavior, sexual addiction, prescription medicine addiction, gambling addiction – to name only a few. Name a human behavior and there is probably someone, that for some reason, can’t manage to keep it in check and in balance in their lives. They don’t understand the saying, “everything in moderation” and can’t handle certain behaviors without these behaviors overwhelming their lives negatively – and the lives of those they love around them. What we can’t see is their inability to participate in life without becoming overwhelmed and thrown out of balance by an overwhelming desire to feed the addiction.
There are many other lifestyle choices that negatively affect behavior: immoral behavior, unethical behavior, manipulators, con artists, liars, cheaters, thieves, murderers, gang members, human traffickers, drug runners, etc. What we don’t see and can’t know is why they feel that this lifestyle choice is an option for them. What makes them feel that they can undermine society and wipe out people’s hopes, dreams and lives?
It’s easy to observe others – when we’re blind to our own lives and conditions. How easy it is to analyze and critique the speck in someone else’s eye when we don’t see the log in our own. It’s hard not to judge others – but we’re warned not to – because we can’t see their hearts or walk a mile in their shoes. We can’t understand their perspective or feel their pain. We can’t know their biology or understand their mental states. Even when the action and the behavior are crystal clear and undeniable, we are never in a position to judge – because there is a storyline, a past, a history, a biological process, an addiction or a psychological issue that defies observation and analysis.
When we see someone making unhealthy lifestyle or health choices for themselves, we can discuss the issue with them and hope that they can understand how their behavior is self destructive or harmful towards others. Often they are living in denial and rationalizing the choices they make. Even if they know and understand the issues, they may not be able to overcome their own biology and psychology to cope and resist them. We may conveniently overlook our own shortcomings and failures – always looking outside ourselves and rarely looking inside of us – and when we do see our faults and failures we often turn a blind eye to them.
Society can condemn the behavior through laws and values. Society can judge and impose justice. Society can put people away to protect society or to protect them from themselves. Society can condemn behavior and insist on penalties and retribution for actions that undermine values, laws and civil society. But what does the individual do? What must we do? How should be behave towards people and their behavior that is wrong, self-destructive, harmful, hurtful, immoral, unlawful, unethical and unconscionable?
We can never condone anti-social, amoral, unethical and unlawful behavior that undermines society’s laws and rights of peaceful co-existence in freedom and individual dignity. We can support society’s rights to protect it’s citizens from harmful behaviors that other people may impose on them – willingly or unwillingly. We can insist that society protect the most innocent of its members: the unborn, the young, the sick, the feeble and the elderly.
And we can love. We can love the unlovable. We can love them despite their actions – even as we disagree with or condemn their actions – because we can’t know what the root cause is behind their issues. We don’t know their past and we don’t know their experience. We don’t know their hurt or their mental capacity. What we do know is that they need our love despite their actions – because every life is precious. It is not ours as individuals to judge or condemn – that is the rightful role of society. Individuals can morn whatever harm or hurtful behavior has been committed. Individuals can support society’s traditional role of judging and condemning hurtful or immoral behavior. It is the individual’s right to choose not to associate with people that act in inappropriate ways and commit acts that are against their values and or the values of society.
But it is also the individual’s greater responsible to love – unconditionally – regardless of the action or harm that was committed, no matter how terrible or unconscionable. To love is always right, is always correct and is always moral. To forgive is the single most merciful and powerful action that we are capable of as human beings – as it is the most moral, the most loving and the most personal of all human actions. To judge is left for society to do. To love is our own personal responsibility – unconditionally – despite our own perspectives concerning anyone’s behavior. To love and to forgive bring us closer to God than we otherwise can be. We love and forgive with the faith and hope that God will also do this for us – knowing that we don’t deserve God’s loving or forgiving – because the price of our sin was already paid for, over 2000 years ago – by Jesus.