Off the Bench: A letter to my grandchildren

Dear “Magnificent Eleven,”

Having lived now almost 80 years, I thought it would be a good time to impart what wisdom I have accumulated in a long, happy, and productive life, the happiness being in no small part attributable to you. To tell the truth, the reason your grandmother and I had children was to get to you.

My life has spanned all or part of the terms of thirteen presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Donald J. Trump. From one of the best to one of the worst in our history. I recommend that you study history. It provides context, perspective, insights into human nature, and an awareness of things gained and lost. Progress, particularly in the areas of science and technology, is obvious. Less apparent and often not anticipated, is the price paid for it. More and more distractions tend to overwhelm us. Lost is the time to think, contemplate, or pray. Find time for simple things like nature, quiet reflection, and connections.

War is madness, mass murder on a gigantic scale. Too many have been fought in my lifetime, only two of which – World War II and perhaps Korea, in my opinion – were justified. Where is the sanity when young people of one country seek to maim or kill young people of another over policies they do not understand and for which they are not responsible. Under different circumstances, they could be friends. I pray that in your lifetime, mankind will finally see the utter futility of war.

On a related subject, our obsession with guns is irrational. They are efficient instruments to maim or kill. Despite claims to the contrary, the reason this country has such a high murder/suicide rate is the availability of guns. There are more guns here than there are people. Nations that restrict guns have far fewer murders. Due to a dubious interpretation of the Second Amendment, there now exists a constitutional right to own a gun. Through the efforts of gun rights activists, gun ownership has taken on an almost religious fervor. If only such devotion were displayed for protecting human life!

I have always prayed for courage, fortitude (moral courage), wisdom, understanding, and self-control. These virtues, along with integrity, honor, and humility, are all part of what is known as character. A commitment to being principled should be an essential part of your development. It provides a solid foundation for anything you do.

Be as generous to your parents as you would like your children to be to you. We are all flawed and will make mistakes. Parents make mistakes, some of which they may not even be aware of. You, too, will make mistakes, perhaps not the same ones as your parents, but you will make them. Part of loving is understanding and forgiveness. Remember: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It asks for understanding and forgiveness in the same portion that we provide it. Those who hold grudges for real or imagined grievances usually expect antipathy in return and are often won over when, instead, they receive love and understanding. Try throwing a “love bomb” to someone who is angry or alienated. It often works.

Avoid being drawn into controversies over matters unimportant, damaging, or senseless. Refuse to engage in personal disputes, the consequences of which may be far more damaging than the underlying grievance. Strive to be a peacemaker even to the point of apologizing for a real or imagined offense. Anger invariably makes a bad situation worse.

There are reasonable arguments for and against the existence of God. Both require a leap of faith. I have concluded that the only thing more preposterous than belief in God is to believe there is no God. To think that the cosmos, nature, and life are the result of some enormous cataclysm, an endless series of coincidences/accidents without any rhyme or reason, is folly. While I do not understand it, I believe there is planning and purpose (some call it “intelligent design”) behind evolution. Without a creator, where did the stuff that initiated this ever-so-complex process come from?

I also believe in transcendent virtues. Truth, love, and justice, are not mere artifacts, customs, or social norms that evolved but can change over time. They are absolute, and further evidence of a deity. We may not do a good job of understanding and applying these virtues, but they are not malleable, artificial, or subjective. They are the standards by which our success or failure as human beings will be measured. They are further defined in the Beatitudes, Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence.

As a Christian, I accept the teaching that we are all ultimately accountable for our behavior; good is rewarded and evil punished by a merciful God. Otherwise, Hitler and Stalin would escape into oblivion and never have to answer for their monstrous deeds. Without absolute justice, the poor, sick, suffering, and oppressed of the world would share the same fate as despots.

The rich and powerful no more merit opportunities and success than the disadvantaged of the world deserve their pain and suffering. True justice requires a final reckoning, a balancing, when a person’s capacity to do good or evil is measured against his or her actions. Only an all-knowing God can make that judgment. Human justice is flawed in several respects: It is limited by an inability to always establish the truth, arbitrary in in its application, and more concerned with behavior than capacity. Legal or illegal is no substitute for knowing right from wrong.

Transcendent love is the paramount virtue from which all others flow. Because of obvious flaws in human nature, mankind is incapable of selfless love, fully identifying truth or doing justice, individual or social. Love, truth, and justice as we know them are only pale reflections of the absolute virtues embodied in God. Our job is to strive to achieve them as best we can.

In my opinion, the fundamental weakness in human nature is not “original sin” but free will. We were given it as a gift and a burden. Without it, we would be like robots, not responsible for our actions. Implicit in free will is the capacity to sin. Christian redemption was an act of supreme love wherein Christ died to atone for the inevitable evil that would result in the exercise of free will.
Love you all! You have been life’s greatest gifts.

– Papa

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.