It’s really a matter of principle

Ilearned I am a man of principles. I also learned this doesn’t mean diddly squat. Principles can make one virtuous and righteous or virtueless and self-righteous. Hospitals have been built, wells have been dug and starving people fed by people of principles. Genocides have been committed, coffers have been looted, free people have been enslaved by people of principles. No matter how much I swing through the trees and beat my chest while shouting “I am a man of principles” the sentence on its own has no meaning.

As I grow older, there is something about myself becoming apparent to me. As my family, friends, one editor and about half a dozen nurses and medical staff and the cashiers at Walmart can attest, I am becoming a cranky, short-of-patience and cynical butt-head…a curmudgeon. Now, let me tell you a little secret about curmudgeonism…us curmudgeonist really, really enjoy curmudgeonism. It’s a liberating sort of thing. The most liberating part of being a curmudgeon is the cynicism. Nothing is taken at face value. Everything is met with a “Uh-huh … right!” pending further investigation…including…my own principles.

For the whole of my life, I have believed that my principles were the foundational bedrock of everything I am; that principles are the welds in the steel that supports the bridge that carries me from one shore to another; that principles are the invariable in a world of variables. I still believe this. But today I know the welds that hold bridges together are periodically inspected…their strength reviewed … enter the cynical butt-head.

One problem with principles is that there are too many; like a casino buffet…so much to choose from…so many in fact, one principle often contradicts another, sort of like plopping a glob of lime Jell-O atop the prime-rib. The principle of compassion is overshadowed by the principle of self-preservation, the principle of giving circumvented by the principle of providing for our own, the principle of love stripped of power by the principle of justice or the principle of justice hindered by the principle of forgiveness. The only way to deal with these contradictions is to build a hierarchy of principles. But this is known as a thing called situational ethics…a thing against many people’s principles. Dang!

Then there is a larger problem … not everyone who espouses particular principles really believes in those principles. Politicians come to mind. It seems a principleless thing for a person to do, to rally for war, to say a great principle is at stake, to demand sending men and women to kill and be killed without also demanding a majestic horse and sword to swing while leading the way … as a matter of principle. Of late there has been news from around the country of the very same police departments operating “gun buy-back” programs to get guns off the street…one principle at work…while at the same time auctioning off used and confiscated guns to the public…an opposing principle.

Principles become blurry when in action or inaction. My wife and I, once or twice a month, as a matter of principle cook for homeless people. Do we invite any of them home? What! Are you crazy? Loving my neighbor as myself seems like a biggie. But the truth is the principle of privacy prevents me from even knowing my neighbor beyond “Hey!” “Good morning.” or “Howdy!” I sure love ya.

Principles are not things we are born with. Though, beginning very early in life, things we begin to adopt. From those principles we build belief systems and associations, we define ourselves, they become our identity. Sometimes we try to impose our principle onto others, try to change them into someone more like ourselves and our principles become despotic. Malala Yousafzai comes to mind. Even as a young girl she believed in the principle of a woman’s right to education. But she lived in the Taliban occupied Swat Valley of Pakistan. The Taliban, as a matter of principle, believed women should not be educated. As a matter of principle, Malala persisted. When she was 15, as a matter of principle, the Taliban shot her in the head. She survived and today lives in the UK and still advocates for women’s rights. Back in Pakistan, over 50 Muslim clerics issued a fatwā against those who tried to kill her … as a matter of principle.

The cynical curmudgeon in me is both fascinated and dumbfounded by my own principles. And I wonder, could my principles be improved, more developed, cleaned up, more clear? And so, I ask of you, my readers, all 22 of you, a boon. Next week, in as much as man proposes and God disposes, I will have been writing this column for a year. Every week I write about what I have learned. And now I want to learn something from you. It was Solomon who said a wise man seeks the council of many. So I ask you, the many, What are your principles? I want to know. You see, your principles not only define you, just as my principles do not only define me. When our principles are summed up, made aggregate … they define America. That is what America is … the sum of our principles. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at