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Why Context is Important

Let’s do a personality evaluation. We won’t judge this guy but let’s run through some of his “life choices” and see how he stacks up.

Married five times, father of six children in and out of prison several times. Before he was 14 years old he had been sent to juvenile detention centers for writing bad checks, theft, and shoplifting.

He left his native California by riding on trains and hitchhiking to Texas. The next year he was arrested for petty larceny and truancy. He served 15 months in a high-security installation because he kept escaping from institutions with less security. Shortly after his release, he was arrested again for beating a boy during a burglary.

He married before the age of 20 and shortly thereafter was sent to San Quentin prison for armed robbery. He had other scrapes with the law, started brewing his own alcohol substitutes in prison, and got drunk regularly while serving time. While in prison he found out that his wife was expecting another man’s child. All of this happened before he was 22 years old.

Reporting this about this guy would be true and accurate. But as you might guess, it ain’t the whole story. If you only report that much of it, the story lacks quite a bit of context. His life, to this point, is literally a country-western song.

No wonder he became so good at singing them. 38 number one songs, four times named Male Vocalist of the Year, multiple albums and song of the year awards, multiple Grammy award winner, inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame, given Kennedy Center honors, you get the picture. Reporting this part of his life would be true and accurate also.

Reporting whichever part that you liked best, or preferred to emphasize, without reporting the other side of the story would be neglecting to put the whole story of Merle Haggard in context.

Within a few years of his death on his 79th birthday, one of his daughters died. The cause of death was listed as a broken heart. This is a real thing… I know of it because a friend of ours died of it, and our sister-in-law almost died of it as well. Why did his daughter die of a broken heart? Because he only took time to develop a relationship with his six children later in life, it wasn’t always a priority of his.

He developed that relationship when his kids were adults, and when he passed away, one daughter never recovered from the disappointment of losing him.

Merle Haggard was a human being. He sucked at life early on and got a lot better at it as time went on… but he still lacked some skills and traits that caused him and those around him heartache, disappointment, and difficulty. He wasn’t perfect, by any stretch, but he did turn his life around enough to cash in on an enormous talent that he had. To tell only part of his story is to omit an integral part of who he was.

I am not a huge fan of Merle Haggard, I might not even be able to pick out a song if I heard it played. Merle Haggard’s life is just a worthy example of showing how telling one portion of his story, no matter how true and accurate, would be dishonest, plain, and simple.

If you want to think of him as a worthless criminal who got lucky, or a talented performer with a troubled past, or however you want to think of him, it needs to be with an understanding of the whole.

And, in a larger context, our news is presented to us with six of one OR a half a dozen of the other. Context, people… is an important thing. It’s my number two strength in the Clifton StrengthFinders spectrum, and I think of it as my BS detector. If I hear a story that is too pat, sounds too full of somebody’s narrative, I investigate. When I do, I am usually justified in my discovery of a whole boatload of information being left out. I invite you to do the same.

My number one gripe about the news as it is packaged and presented to us today is how the people serving it up are so lacking in curiosity. Or they aren’t allowed to have curiosity, or to pursue their curiosity. I hate to sound like the old voice in the room, but it didn’t always use to be like this. Truth used to emerge, it used to triumph, it used to matter. Context matters. A story isn’t complete unless all of it gets to be disinfected in the sunlight of full exposure. It rarely happens now, if ever.

Challenge yourself to help shine that light. One of the ways that we can change the world, which so many of us proclaim that we want to do, is to help educate the world. And to do that we have to sometimes plunge into the cold murky waters of discomfort.

The truth is out there, but it’s not easy to find it, to see it, or to recognize it. And don’t get mad at someone who might be trying to do that service for you, even if it makes a ding in a narrative that you have been clinging to.

I suppose it would be clever to do a callback and say something akin to that you have now been introduced to “The Fightin’ Side of Me…” but for all, I know that song is completely about something else. If I could, I would quote a Waylon Jennings song, or maybe David Allan Coe… but let’s just end here with this thought. Someone else’s opinion might contain some of that disinfected truth, and it doesn’t do anyone any good by referring to it as “conspiracy theory” or “fake news” or “biased” or however you want to dismiss it. That’s where conversation, dialogue, and honest give and take come in. Try it, so we don’t have to see anyone’s “Fightin’ Side.”

Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

7 COMMENTS

  1. And Kimberly… I so appreciate how enthusiastically you support those around you. History offers so much “context” to better understand how we got here and some of the why… and it can help us to avoid some of the pitfalls that got others before us. It’s not 100% failsafe, but nothing is. No teacher is perfect, but if we open our hearts and minds to what has taught so many who have gone before us, we can do what we all say that we want to do – get a little better, incrementally. I can’t be perfect, but if I am just a little better than I was yesterday… it will insure that the “best me” shows up as much as possible. Toss Utopia out the window and remember Vince Lombardi “If we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” Part of that chase involves knowing context, and history is a big part of context.

  2. Tom, such an exquisite story. I find myself thinking about and talking about the notion of a zoom lens, like on one of those things people don’t seem to use much anymore, a real camera. This story reminds me of the zoom lens of our awareness and how our biases tend to be so very myopic which can be beautiful for photography and when the utmost focus is required but often times unskillful when it comes to awareness until we can put our finger on that lever to widen the view. Thank you for widening the lens and allowing for lowering the aperature of our awareness.

  3. Thank you so much, Tom, for your encouragement to seek the whole truth about an issue, a challenge, a person’s entire life. Years ago, when I taught politics and government, I remember being adamant about the students reading original sources and not just what other people said about an event or a person or an idea. Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky is an excellent book about the media. I find that doing thorough research that’s grounded in facts rather than assumptions or opinions can be very important in the educational process. When we learn new information, we can make better informed choices and often live healthier lives. Assumptions often are not true, yet our brains can hold onto them as though they are…

  4. Tom — A brilliant piece. This especially impacted me: “…but it didn’t always use to be like this. Truth used to emerge, it used to triumph, it used to matter.” I grew up watching and listening to real reporters write and deliver the news: reporters who cut their teeth during WWII and Vietnam. Walter Cronkite. Edward R. Murrow. Charles Collingwood. Helen Kirkpatrick. Robert Pierpoint. Morley Safer. I remember when Cronkite turned against Johnson turning the Vietnam War that someone remarked something to the effect, “When you lose Cronkite, you lose the living rooms of America.”

    Today, it’s SO easy to present and defend one side, the facts that lend themselves to OUR argument.

    Education is key. We have to help our kids understand that what they’re reading is not always “everything.”

  5. Love, love, love this, Tom! I so appreciate how you weave your love of history into everything you do and you actually ignite a love of history in your readers while you do it! I also so appreciate how you handle such heavy subjects with humor and warmth, which makes the medicine you’re serving go down a bit easier. Keep writing friend. You have a gift for nudging us into truth.

    • And Kimberly… I so appreciate how enthusiastically you support those around you. History offers so much “context” to better understand how we got here and some of the why… and it can help us to avoid some of the pitfalls that got others before us. It’s not 100% failsafe, but nothing is. No teacher is perfect, but if we open our hearts and minds to what has taught so many who have gone before us, we can do what we all say that we want to do – get a little better, incrementally. I can’t be perfect, but if I am just a little better than I was yesterday… it will insure that the “best me” shows up as much as possible. Toss Utopia out the window and remember Vince Lombardi “If we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” Part of that chase involves knowing context, and history is a big part of context.

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