Archive for the ‘Between Faith and Rationality’ Category

I have a friend named Jay. He’s the kind of guy you want with you when everything goes to hell. If there were a zombie apocalypse, I’d want him by my side. He’s handy. He’s capable. He understands how things work and how to fix them when they don’t. He’s not afraid to confront what he doesn’t know, and find a solution. He’s a man of action, of knowledge, of science and mathematics… in other words, a rational human being.

He’s also a man who embodies the ideal of “being of service” to those around him. Although he, like so many others, evacuated New Orleans when Katrina forced him to, he went back to help. Prevented from staying, he ended up in Mississippi, where he joined a crew and helped with the rescue, recovery and reconstruction there.

And while Jay is clearly a man who has faith in himself and his own abilities, he is also rational enough to recognize his limits… and what he needs to do to overcome them. He joined a swift-water rescue team back in New Orleans so that the next time disaster struck, he’d not only be in a better position to help, but he’d be a first responder, and nobody could tell him “it’s not your job to help…get over there with the rest of the victims.” But even that wasn’t enough for Jay. He realized that he could be more useful if he expanded his skill set, and that meant EMT training. To get it, he joined a medical unit in the Army Reserves.

Now you’ve got to know that Jay isn’t an 18 year old. Even though he is over twice the age of most recruits, Jay not only held his own in basic training against younger men in their peak condition, but he rose to the top, winning competitions, promotions and recognition.

In fact, he did so well that he got noticed. And as we speak, he is in Afghanistan, the first member of the first Reserve medevac unit ever to go into combat, where he is the combat medic on a Blackhawk chopper, rescuing wounded soldiers and civilians in support of the 1st Air Cavalry Unit (the one from “We Were Soldiers”). He was supposed to have a three week breaking-in period, but instead, they threw him onto a chopper as soon as he arrived, and he’s been flying virtually non-stop ever since.

So why am I writing about Jay? Because it’s the first day of the new year: the day that, while we may successfully hide from introspection every other day of the year, forces us, by immersion, peer pressure, natural progression or the need to buy a new desk calendar, to look back on what we accomplished in the previous year, and what we’ll do with our lives in the year, and years, to come.

This new beginning (as if every other day of the year can’t also be a new beginning!) comes amidst anxiety, concern, and even fear about the stability of our institutions, our financial wellbeing, our environment and for many of us, our livelihoods.

And while there are many people out there praying for guidance, out of work or stuck in lives and jobs that aren’t the ones they want, I suggest to them that the answer doesn’t lie in prayer or in faith in something outside of themselves.

The answer lies in faith in themselves, in their own abilities and in their own strength to move forward from this moment under their own power, in a direction that they determine for themselves.

I know countless examples of people who, in the midst of this crisis, or of their own personal crises, used the opportunity to start new and become the people they always wanted to be. People who have started second careers in their thirties, or forties, or fifties. People who have gone back to school as adults and become doctors. People who have been downsized, reorganized or shown the door and have responded by starting businesses, going back to school, getting out of dodge and pursuing their art, or seizing the opportunity to travel the world as they’ve always dreamed. And people who are still fighting for their dream, not giving up, not listening to the nameless, faceless “they” that tells them they aren’t good enough, that their ideas can’t change the world.

When somebody tells you to have faith in a higher power because we are merely human, transitory and inconsequential; when somebody tells you that you are at the mercy of institutions, the powers that be, or the irresistible currents of history; when somebody tells you to accept your lot in life, your position, or your status: I say to you instead that all you need is faith in yourself and a rational assessment of where you want to be, what you’re capable of, and what you need to take you there.

And to all of you in my life who serve as examples of what a life lived with faith in yourself can look like (even those of you who also simultaneously have faith in a higher power), I say thank you for the inspiration and the reminder.

Can someone please explain to me why anyone would want to surround themselves with people who do any less?

10 years ago today, probably right around the same time I’m sitting down to write this post, my good friend Bill Railey died alone in his apartment on 8th Avenue above the Molly Wee Pub in NYC.

He lived a hard drinking, hard smoking, hard partying life, and when he found out he had late stage, inevitably terminal lung cancer, he never whined about it, never cried foul.

I have a bottle of single malt Irish whiskey that I bought for Bill on his last birthday, but he couldn’t drink at that point, so I saved it. Every year, on New Year’s Eve, I have a shot for Bill and repeat the toast I heard him make in his gravelly voice, more times than I care to remember: “To happiness, whatever it takes.”

He was as unsentimental as they come, never suffered fools, and wasn’t afraid to fight for what he believed in. He was an anarchist, a Randian, a biker, a philosopher, an animator and above all else, an artist.

And he had more faith than almost anyone I’ve ever known.

Not the kind of faith people vest in unseen creators, powerful institutions, the legal system or governments. No, Bill Railey’s faith was in himself, in the abilities of individuals, in the things we do rather than the things we say.

His faith was sorely tested. He took part in more than his share of battles, in courtrooms against better funded enemies, ex-wives, and even the mighty Disney machine.

But he never gave up. Even while he was losing his last, toughest battle, he never gave up and he never lost faith in himself.

At the time of his death, Bill and I were collaborating on two projects. One was an animated series about a female vigilante serial killer that was in its infancy. The other was called Thinking Meat, which he described as “the world’s only animated program recorded before a live studio audience” and had originally conceived with Sally Franz.

We actually posted two episodes, “Cosby on Def Jam” and “The Zoo” to iFilm. They were a little raunchy, a little offensive, and very funny. In other words, they would have killed on YouTube today. Unfortunately, this was 5 years before YouTube… and just a few months before Bill died.

At a time when many people turn to religion, even people who never believed before, Bill never resorted to mysticism or superstition. He faced his end rationally, with his eyes open wide and no regret for the choices he made.

I was fortunate to know Bill, and perhaps, weird as it sounds, lucky that his inevitable end came on New Year’s Eve. Because each year during that time when the whole world makes resolutions, as I take that shot of whiskey from the dwindling remains of that last bottle, I remember my friend, and repeat his toast, “To happiness, whatever it takes.”

I become inspired to live my next year the way Bill lived his life: rationally, with faith in myself. To do whatever it takes (within my own code of morality, of course), to live my life so that when it ends, I can own my choices, and recognize my steps as my own.

Can someone please explain to me why anyone would want to live life any other way?

There’s a spot in New York City, on 5th Avenue between 51st and 50th Streets. If you go there late at night, or early on New Year’s Day, you can actually stand in the deserted center of one of the busiest avenues in the city.  The spot itself isn’t remarkable — it’s what’s around you. To your left is St. Patrick’s Cathedral and to your right is the statue of Atlas in front of Rockefeller Center.

In other words, you are literally standing between one of the world’s greatest expressions of faith and one of mankind’s most enduring symbols of science, technology and rationality.

Whenever I’ve stood in this spot, the juxtaposition of life’s two great themes has added valuable clarity into the confusion of my choices and challenges.

As we begin a new year with its delineation, both artificial and realistic, between what came before and what comes next, I think it is important to keep these two themes in their proper place.

The challenges of business, marketing and our personal lives and finances which this new year will bring will seem unexpected and insurmountable to some, expected and easily addressed by others.

When you look at life as a continual set of challenges and opportunities, when you have a method for addressing problems rationally and intelligently, applying the right tools or the right processes and then testing the outcome before moving ahead, this year’s challenges are no more daunting than last year’s.

When you have faith in your own abilities and in your own ethical core, you have the strength to face any new challenges and opportunities because you have the sure knowledge that you are up to the task, and that even if you fail at times, you will not give up and eventually will find the answer or solution.

It is only when we confuse faith and rationality, and attempt to use faith as a tool to reach our goal, that we are doomed to failure. Faith is a feeling, not a tool.

I had a client who attended a Small Business luncheon and was told by an expert consultant that she needed a blog and that it would help her business. She believed the speaker, and came to my agency and said, “I need a blog.”

We discussed why she wanted a blog. We rationally explored who would be interested in reading it, and came to the conclusion that the way in which her customers find her business and what they want out of it would not be enhanced by a blog. We discussed the amount of time and effort it takes to maintain a blog, and compared it to other expenditures of effort which could have a direct impact on new customer acquisition and repeat business.

When we were done, her belief that she needed a blog and her faith in the speaker/consultant was replaced with a rational assessment of blogs and their ability to deliver ROI for her business at this time.

The conversation reminded me of the now classic, cliche conversation from the mid-90’s:

“I need a website.”
“Why?”
“Everybody else has one.”
“What do you want the site to do for your business?”
“I don’t know. I just know that I need one.”

We all know how well that turned out.

Now is the time to have faith in our ability to use our rationality to navigate the challenges ahead and come out of them stronger, smarter, and more able to succeed at the hard tasks at hand for our nation, our businesses and our selves.

It is not the time to reignite the war between faith and rationality that has divided and handicapped us for centuries.

So can someone please explain to me why something that’s so easy to see on 5th Avenue is so much harder to see in our own lives?