The combination of Memorial Day reflections on my late father’s character and a letter to relentlessly ethical advice columnist Carolyn Hax leads me to expound on what we will henceforth call the “Julie Principle.”
Hax’s non-religious correspondent wanted to know what she should do about a good but annoyingly Evangelical friend, who would not cease inviting her to attend church, despite knowing that such an activity held no appeal whatsoever. Hax’s answer, which you can read here, touched on many approaches to the problem. To my dad, the answer was simple.
My father had essentially four close friends his whole life: men he met and learned to love as a fatherless child in Depression Era Louisville, Kentucky, forced to move and change schools every few months because his mother would run out of jobs and rent money. They all belonged to the same Boy Scout troop, and though life took all four into different locales and careers, they stayed in close contact throughout their lives. One of them, “Bud,” lived the closest to the Marshalls, so we saw more of him than the others. He was a sociopath. My mother couldn’t stand him, and with good reason. He was a shameless rogue. Lies and manipulation were his calling cards: after he died, it was hardly a surprise—though it was a surprise—when a second wife from Australia showed up, unannounced, at his funeral. Bud had maintained a second family while supposedly being happily married to the long-suffering wife that we knew.
Long before Bud’s demise, I asked my father, whom I never knew to lie about anything, why he remained friends with a man who was despicable in so many ways. He smiled and launched into a tone-deaf rendition of the opening line of the famous lament (“Can’t help lovin’ dat man o’ mine”) sung by the character Julie in the epic musical “Show Boat”: “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…” Knowing the song, I first assumed that he was telling me that the answer to my question was the same as Julie’s explanation in the song for why she continued to be loyal to her abusive, untrustworthy lover: she couldn’t help it; that was just the way she was. But that wasn’t his meaning.
He meant that Bud wasn’t going to change. Bud was always like this, and his sociopathic tendencies were as natural to him as flying was to birds and swimming was to fish. “It makes no sense,” he told me, “to keep getting angry at people for who and what they are. You make a decision, that’s all. Do I care enough about this individual, for whatever reason, to be his friend, or don’t I? If I do, I accept the package, wings, gills and all. I knew Bud was like he was when we were kids. He was there for me, along with the others, when I had nothing else, and he has always been loyal to me. I decided he was my friend just as he was, and that I would accept the aspects of his character the I didn’t like. The alternative was having nothing to do with him.”
That’s the Julie Principle. When a characteristic or a behavior pattern appears to be hard-wired into someone, it makes no sense to keep complaining about it. You either resolve to tolerate it ( and accept responsibility for the consequences of doing so), or decide that it is too much to endure, meaning that the relationship has to end. In Hax’s scenario, both friends were fighting the Julie Principle: one wanted a non-religious friend to do a U-turn and find God; the other wanted an Evangelical friend to stop acting like an Evangelical. If the friendship is to endure, both friends have to accept what they cannot change. “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…”
The Julie Principle comes in handy in resolving many ethical dilemmas. In making an ethical analysis requiring balancing, the illusion, when it is an illusion, that a major part of the equation can be removed by just a little more advocacy, education or pressure permanently warps the process. We have been debating same-sex marriage here in several threads, and the illusion that gays can change their orientation, that it is a choice rather than part of their essence, is a massive impediment to reaching a rational accord. The Julie Principle applies. Do we want gay Americans to be part, and feel like a part, of the American fabric, or do we want to make what is essential to their being a deal-breaker? We’re the ones with the choice, not them.
I think the Julie Principle makes the choice obvious. It makes the choice obvious in the immigration debate as well. All those illegals are here. They have ties to family, the economy and the community: they aren’t leaving. “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…” Does it make sense to keep punishing million of people for what they can’t change, or do we accept them for the good they can do from this point on? Sure, it would be preferable if we hadn’t allowed so many to walk across our boarders, just as it would have been preferable if Bud didn’t lie his way into Harvard College (which he did.) But it’s too late to do anything about that. Bud gave a lot of money to Harvard.
“Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…”
The challenge in executing the Julie Principle is how you accept your bird or fish without letting that act corrupt your own values, or stop you from continuing to advocate and fight for them. That’s when reciprocity comes in, or should. Bud knew that my father was an Eagle Scout to the core; he knew that Dad disapproved of a lot of Bud’s conduct, but admired and cherished the fact that he remained his friend. To a limited extent, it may have even made Bud a better person. My father had that effect on people, even hard cases like Bud.
The Julie Principle lies at the center of tolerance in its most productive sense. It also will keep you from going crazy. It is no accident that the Alcohol Anonymous Serenity Prayer begins,
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Addendum: It was not the impetus for the post, but the Julie Principle has another benefit: it relieves one of the perceived obligation of listening to those who say “Everyone deserves a second chance,” a refrain now being heard in New York in reference to Anthony Weiner. If you gave Bud a second chance to screw you, he’d screw you. The same is true of Marion Barry, Bill Clinton, and Iran. Once you have determined that the Julie Principle applies, it is futile, not to mention idiotic, to say, “Hey! Let’s see if the fish will fly this time!”