The Better Letter: Someone Say Grace

Avoiding error isn't enough

Monday is Memorial Day. It is a day on which we remember the sacrifices (Lincoln’s “last full measure of devotion”) made by so many so that we could live free. We commemorate those sacrifices, as well we should (Lincoln’s “it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this”), and we do so in a variety of ways. This year’s celebrations, such as they are, will necessarily be quite different.  

All Memorial Day remembrances are tinged with sadness and longing — honoring the dead and resolving “that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Our enduring hope is that we may all experience “a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Every time I visit our nation’s capital (which I do fairly often, pandemic permitting, since all three of my children and their families live in the area), I like to visit the Lincoln Memorial, where I always sit and read his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, the words of which are chiseled in the walls.

The ever-practical Lincoln asked, “It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’” Sitting in that temple, I always resolve to do better. To be better.

Our national resolve was never more thoroughly tested than by what Lincoln called the “great contest.” As he so eloquently put it, “[b]oth parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” Those last four words are as understated as they are devastating.

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

That is the best writing America has ever seen. More importantly, Father Abraham had a full sense of purpose. He knew who he was and what he was called to do.

In plainer (if still eloquent) prose, Col. Joshua Chamberlain (played by Jeff Daniels) made similar points (“the idea that we all have value”) in this famous speech from Gettysburg, the film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s wonderful book, The Killer Angels. “We are an army out to set other men free.”

“Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was.” 

At some level, all of us build our lives on ideas and ideals. In memoriam for those whose devotion allows us to breathe free, ponder your ideas and your ideals a bit this Memorial Day. In gratitude, hear the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club sing the Navy Hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, inspired by Psalm 107 and sung at the end of every Navy service and memorial, the words to which are carved into the stone wall of the Navy Chapel at Annapolis. 

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Someone Say Grace

There are rules to follow if you want to survive a horror movie.

Don’t have sex. Don’t go snooping around. Don’t split up. Don’t check it out. 

But whether it’s Adam and Eve in the Garden or yet another victim in a slasher flick, for most humans, rules are made to be broken, or to be honored only in the breach. Indeed, they often act as an invitation.

Like the Ten Commandments.

Every kid brought up in church has chafed at the perceived rigidity of the various prohibitions people in charge impose. It feels restrictive to focus so much on what one shouldn’t do. It seems backward to be defined by what one isn’t.

But there is surprising wisdom in starting there, at least conceptually. The primary mechanism for human improvement is the elimination of error.

Every golfer has been guilty – going for it instead of making the smart play by laying up.

Similarly, when golfers get into trouble, they should forget the hero shot, and punch out. Losing one shot is much better than losing two or three by trying to be Phil Mickelson.  

In golf, the analytical key to better performance is simple and profound: it’s easier to avoid losing shots than intentionally to gain them. In other words, eliminate mistakes. Don’t be stupid.

In the NFL, turnovers have trended downward dramatically over the past 70 years, as teams learned that eliminating mistakes was highly conducive to winning. Even so, in very different periods with significantly different turnover numbers, teams that win the turnover battle have consistently won the game 78 percent of the time.

The same principle can be demonstrated mathematically. Gather 10 people and show them a jar that contains equal numbers of $1, $5, $20, and $100 bills. Pull one out, at random, so nobody can see, and auction it off. If the market is efficient, the bidding should top out at just below $31.50 (how much less will depend on the extent of the group’s loss aversion), the value of the average bill {(1+5+20+100)/4}.

If you repeat the process but this time allow two of the ten prospective bidders to see the bill you picked, the bidding should look quite different. If you picked a $100 bill, the insiders should be willing to pay up to $99.99 for the bill. Neither of them will benefit much from insider knowledge. However, if it’s a $1 bill, neither of the insiders will bid. 

Without knowing what the bill was, each of the insiders would have had a one-in-ten chance of paying $31.50 for the bill, suffering a loss of $30.50, and would have suffered a loss in 75 of 100 cases. On an expected value basis, each gained $3.05 from being an insider. 

Once again, you gain more by eliminating error than you do by making a smart play.

As Charley Ellis famously established, investing and life more broadly are loser’s games much of the time, with outcomes dominated by luck rather than skill and high transaction costs. If we avoid mistakes we will generally win. 

However, avoiding mistakes is necessary but not sufficient to live a full and fulfilled life. In a Christian context, the Ten Commandments provide a foundation, but more is expected of us. As our prayers of confession assert, “we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” In simple terms, it isn’t enough to avoid doing bad things. We are called to do good things.  

“But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,

    what God is looking for in men and women.

It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,

    be compassionate and loyal in your love,

And don’t take yourself too seriously—

    take God seriously.”

Drawing on the resources of God’s “unfailing love,” we can be transformed into living wellsprings of unfailing love ourselves.

That isn’t a faith often on display today – Christians known by their love. The faith most often seen in the U.S. today is unkind, fearful, angry, and enslaved by politics. We are called to say grace yet we spew condemnation. It isn’t very winsome. Is it any wonder Christianity is declining in America, despite worldwide growth

All of us focus on the not-now. Stressing what we won’t be doing is living in the not-now, in some abstract future. However, real love is as present as can be. Real love is acting with kindness, grace, and love right now.

Examples include ESPN broadcaster Dave Pasch and WNBA superstar Maya Moore. A year ago, Moore took a hiatus from basketball to advocate for Jonathan Irons, a man who had served 23 years in prison and who she believed was wrongfully convicted. Recently, Irons' conviction and 50-year sentence were overturned. This is remarkable conviction by Moore – intentionally Christian conviction.

Love wins. Not in every situation and not always right away, but ultimately.

We all struggle to be truly present. We want to lose weight but eat the cake. We want to be fitter but stay on the couch. We want to save money but buy the new gizmo. We want to have stronger relationships but don’t invest in them. We want to be better parents but don’t give our kids time and attention. We want to serve others but can’t be bothered to stay home or to wear a mask when we go out. 

We are supposed to love people and use things. We get it backwards far too often. 

As psychiatrist Curt Thompson points out, the most important question today is not how to beat COVID-19: “The most prominent question to be answered is to what degree will I become a living, breathing outpost of unfailing love for those around me.” That means being embodied by and active with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The rubber eventually meets the road. The golfer must hit the shot. The football team must hold on to the football. That goal is both sacred and mundane, alive amidst and despite “war and peace, famine, traitorous connivance; a failing harvest, a stubborn populace, plague ravaging London, and the king losing his shirt at cards.”

Remarkably, Jesus doesn’t propose making bad people good, or even a bit better. He promises to make dead people alive to live love and speak grace.

Right now.

Pay Attention

We tend to major in the minors and ignore the more significant threats, as demonstrated below. Wait for it.

Even More Real

As David Samuels explained about the musician Neil Young: “What he is after is not some ideal sound but the sound of what happened. The missed notes and off-kilter sounds are part of his art, which is the promise of the real, but also, even mainly, of imperfection.” Those delightful imperfections are proof of life, the essence of being human. Young’s “signature move was to accomplish something amazing and then blow it up, in the pursuit of something that would sound even more real.” As Tim Cook, the head of Apple, concedes, ironically, “We worry that the humanity is being drained out of music.”

Atlas Miscalculated

Ayn Rand, a capitalist icon, never invested in the stock market, and surely had much less money as a consequence. She kept her fortune in a local bank. As so often happens, she let her ideological political commitments control her investment decisions (or the lack thereof). She didn’t invest because she was worried about the effects of government inflation and controls on the economy. “[A] dangerous collapse is inevitable," Rand said during a Q&A session after a 1965 lecture at Suffolk University in Boston. "What I wouldn’t care to guess is when. The situation is so precarious that it can be tomorrow or it may stretch a few more years.”

Comfort Food

I love the movies. Here are 25 movies I love that didn’t necessarily take the world by storm. They were well-liked, even loved, but no Best Picture Oscars here. These are just terrific films worth watching (in alphabetical order with a link to the trailer or a clip).

Almost Famous / Animal House / The American President / Being There / The Big Lebowski / Bridesmaids / Broadcast News / Clueless / Dr. Strangelove / Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind / Fast Times at Ridgemont High / Ferris Bueller’s Day Off / Galaxy Quest / Game Night / Groundhog Day / The Hunt for Red October / The Last Five Years / Mean Girls / Pitch Perfect / The Princess Bride / The Producers / Say Anything / Trading Places / The Truman Show / Young Frankenstein

Totally Worth It

A trick shot goes wrong.

The most heart-warming thing I saw in the last week was this parade. Unless it was this tweet. The coolest thing I read was this piece on pizza arbitrage and the “new economy.” The best thing I read was this piece on risk by Morgan Housel. 

“I hope I die before I get old,” Pete Townshend wrote in The Who’s 1965 hit, “My Generation.” Tuesday, the band’s co-founder and guitarist turned 75. I’m guessing he changed his mind.


This week’s benediction is Vince Gill’s tribute to his late brother, performed with Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs at Carnegie Hall in New York City: “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe, forward, and share. Thanks for reading.

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Issue 14 (May 22, 2020)