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Get a Life: Attend a Funeral

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There's a lot of debate today about what America's priorities ought to be, and in the midst of the debate we hear lots of shouting and accusations. Rick Santorum accuses President Obama of having "some phony theology." Mitt Romney accuses Santorum of being a "big government, Washington insider." President Obama accuses both of not caring about working people. My wish for those ordinary Americans who aren't running for office is this: that you may block out the noise and focus on what really matters.

I was jolted into doing just that recently when the funerals of several associates and friends all happened to occur in the past few weeks. The thing about funerals is that you hear from ordinary people about the real things they care about. Gone is the obsession with politics. Gone are the labels.

In death, I've never heard anyone applauded for living a "severely conservative" or "unashamedly liberal" life. I've never heard talk about her unbelievable home, offshore account, net worth or negotiating prowess. No mention either about his gambling junkets, storage wars, expensive cars or sexual exploits.

So what gives? If these things are so important, why aren't they applauded in people after they die? Imagine the takeaway of extraterrestrials eavesdropping on our TV viewing and radio listening habits about what's important to Americans. If they were to drop in and ask me (so far they haven't, you'll be happy to know), I'd suggest that to assess the reality of American life, they would do much better to attend a funeral.

When I attend funerals, I invariably become a better person. I'm brought back from the din and busy-ness of life to what really matters. At Al's funeral, I heard how much he inspired his grandchildren with his goodness, optimism, charity and smile. What a gift a simple smile can be! When I attended Ron's funeral, I was reminded how he dropped everything to be a surrogate to his brother's children after his sister's early death. Al and Ron's children and grandchildren spoke about being empowered and inspired by their values, vision, ideas and character. The eulogies for both focused on kindness, love, giving back and doing the right thing.

At funerals, petty jealousies fall asunder. Acclaim, regard and love emerge. Take the deaths of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson as examples. In life, they were savaged in the media. And, yet, moments after their deaths, they were lauded as American heroes, flags lowered to half-mast. Why?

I'm neither priest nor psychologist, but I do observe human nature in my work with teens in America's schools. I've seen teens cut people down yet turn on a dime to lift people up when their peers and peer culture tells them to do so. A lot of life and human behavior hinges on "the situation."

Famed Stanford University psychiatrist Dr. Philip Zimbardo discovered this phenomenon when, in an experiment, he asked students to assume roles either as prisoners or guards. The "prisoners" became submissive while the "guards" became sadistic toward their own peers.

In the 1960s, Yale University psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram, in the famed Milgram Shock Experiment, asked students, prompted by actors dressed in white lab coats as authority figures, to give electric shocks to others (also actors, this time disguised as students) in a supposed learning session. Sixty-five percent of the students turned up the electric shocks to levels labeled as "lethal." This experiment was re-validated recently by NBC News with similar results.

These researchers, and others who have followed, discovered that, whether in school, politics or society, we humans issue each other permission to do good, to be abusive or to be indifferent. Clearly, our history demonstrates that slavery was not sanctioned by the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, but, rather, by people who granted cultural permission to others so that enslavement and abuse eventually became commonplace. Later, as people changed their minds about slavery, that permission was withdrawn and the Constitution amended.

Likewise, our culture tells us it's perfectly OK to bash others while they live, but not so after they are gone. Holocaust survivor and visionary psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl spoke of "two races of mankind: the decent and the indecent." At funerals I'm reminded that I want to be part of the decent race. I want America to be a part of that race, as well.

It frustrates me when America the beautiful often morphs into America the noisy and nonsensical. If we give each other permission to spread noise, we enable bashing. If we give each other permission to spread nonsense, we create cultural support for meaningless lifestyles and pointless behavior. We can either live by the noisy standards of society or we can choose to do better. If we focus on the goodness of America -- on our shared values, aspirations and ideals -- maybe we will be able to share a vision and realize some of our goals. Then, the goodness of others will have inspired us not only in death but in life.

Tell me about your inspiring stories that demonstrate the goodness of America at www.Facebook/purpleamericaus or email me at stuartm@Purpleamerica.us.

To see America's shared values, go to www.purpleamerica.us.