Learning right from wrong | Ott Observations

Recently, I read an interesting editorial about declining morality in America. 

The writer describes a significant drop in moral consciousness in our country and attributes it to an all-time low in church attendance. One notable statistic he provided is that only 31 percent of Americans attend a church weekly.

In his column, he raised the question of where shared morality will come from if not from church teaching. He was deeply pessimistic that a secular world of social media, short attention spans, Twitter and TikTok can add any sense of right or wrong to whatever instinctive conscience humans are born with. 

Pretty heavy stuff and a bleak picture.

I completely agree that the decline in people practicing a faith is not a good thing. But I found myself wondering if that is the only source of learning right from wrong. 

If faith is the only source, how do we explain all the people who are religiously ambivalent yet live in harmony with others demonstrating values and integrity?

Looking back on my childhood, it was my parents that taught what was right vs. wrong. Our church attendance was hit or miss, but they were a constant presence in observing and guiding their children’s moral growth. 

“We don’t hit people.” “How would you like it if someone treated you that way?” “We share with others.”

I was lucky to have two engaged parents. Not everyone is so lucky. One of the consequences of poverty is often absent parenting. Parents working long hours to make ends meet. Deadbeat dads. Drug-addicted mothers. Grandmothers trying to raise children despite being worn out from life. Abusive parents.

In fact, dysfunctional families exist in all economic levels, which impairs parental guidance.

Another source of moral mentoring is teachers. It has been a long time since I have sat in a classroom, but I can’t imagine teachers are any less able today to guide students in their interactions with others. 

A memory I still have is of my sixth grade teacher. He observed me playing during recess and pulled me aside afterward to offer some advice. He explained that kidding is part of having a good personality, but that you should be sensitive to how others perceive the kidding. 

It was a great lesson in self-awareness that I still challenge myself to practice to this day.

I also completely agree that social media has brought some negative consequences regarding how we interact with each other. However, I think there is an even more powerful influence – that being the behavior of our leaders. 

Over the past quarter century, we have seen our country’s leaders behave in increasingly shameful ways. Name-calling, slander, purposeful lying, even making fun of physically handicapped people. 

If this is the behavior of the people we entrust to lead us, what do we tell our children?

Readers of this column know I am a big proponent of studying history. We are prone to see the worst in the times we live in and think we’ve declined from the “good old days.” 

I’m not so sure. 

I recently read a biography about Ulysses S. Grant. Late in life, he lost his life savings due to a pyramid scheme by a business partner. He was the hero of the Civil War and a two-term president, yet he ended up writing his memoirs while dying of throat cancer to provide for his family. 

My takeaway is that mankind is equally capable of good and evil and that we will always see examples of each.

So, how can we take up the crusade and personally improve morality? If you are a person of faith, we are called to be disciples and invite others to come closer to God. If we are preachy about it, we may come off as judgmental.

Perhaps the best we can do is to model Christ in how we treat others. Our grace and serenity may provoke curiosity as to the source of our joy and peace.

If we are socially conscious, what can we do to help those trapped in the cycle of poverty or lacking parental love and guidance? We can certainly support teachers better than we do today, giving them the space and authority to provide guidance such as I received from my sixth grade teacher. I have never understood why our society underpays the people we entrust with our children for years. 

If nothing else, we can recommit to engaging with our children and having sometimes difficult conversations … even if they’re now adults.

Every time we vote, we have a choice. We can vote based on issues or we can vote based on the morality, integrity and character we wish was more prevalent. 

Our Founding Fathers envisioned that our leaders in government would come from the best of our citizenry. Both political parties have such people who genuinely want to make government work for people. 

We need to vote the others out.

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Bill Ott

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