Thursday, April 26, 2012

Letter to a Young Woman

Several readers have dug into the archives and retrieved a letter I had written to my youngest daughter when she was a junior in high school some five years ago. I had posted the letter on Viewpoint at the time, and after perusing the emails from those readers I thought I'd repost it in hope that someone finds it helpful.

I originally titled it "A Letter to a Young Girl", but some readers, never having been a father with daughters, thought "young girl" was not a particularly apt description of a high school junior, so I've retitled it to avoid further criticism.

Here it is:
Hi Honey,

I've been thinking a lot about the talk we had the other night on what happiness is and how we obtain it, and I hope you have been, too. I wanted to say a little more about it, and I thought that since I was going to be away, I'd put it into a letter for you to read while I'm gone.

One of the things we talked about was that we can't assess whether we're happy based on our feelings because happiness isn't just a feeling. It's more of a condition or quality of our lives - sort of like beauty is a quality of a symphony. It's a state of satisfaction we gain through devotion to God, living a life of virtue (honesty, integrity, loyalty, chastity, trustworthiness, self-discipline), cultivating wholesome and loving relationships with family and friends, experiencing the pleasures of accomplishment in career, sports, school, etc., and filling our lives with beauty (nature, music, literature, art, etc.).

One thing is sure - happiness isn't found by acquiring material things like clothes and toys. It's not attained by being popular, having good looks, or being high on the social pecking order. Those things seem like they should make us happy, especially when we're young, but they don't. Ultimately they just leave us empty.

To the extent that happiness is a feeling we have to understand that a person's feelings tend to follow her actions. A lot of people allow their feelings to determine their actions - if they like someone they're friendly toward them; if they feel happy they act happy - but this is backwards.

People who do brave things, for instance, don't do them because they feel brave. Most people usually feel terrified when in a dangerous situation, but brave people don't let their feelings rule their behavior, and what they do is all the more wonderful because it's done in spite of everything in them urging them to get out of danger. If they do something brave, despite their fear, we say they have courage and we admire them for it.

Well, happiness is like courage. You should act as if you're happy even if you don't feel it. When you do act that way your feelings change and tend to track your behavior. You find yourself feeling happier than you did before even though the only thing that has changed is your attitude.

How can a person act happy without seeming phony? Well, we can act happy by displaying a positive, upbeat attitude, by being pleasant to be around, by enjoying life, and by smiling a lot. Someone who has a genuine smile (not a Paris Hilton smirk) on her face all the time is much more attractive to other people than someone whose expression always tells other people that she's just worn out or miserable.

One other thing about happiness is that it tends to elude us most when we're most intent on pursuing it. It's when we're busy doing the things I mentioned above, it's when we're busy serving and being a friend to others, that happiness is produced as a by-product. We achieve it when we're not thinking about it. It just tags along, as if it were tied by a string, with love for God, family, friends, beauty, accomplishment, a rewarding career, and so on.

Sometimes young people are worried that they don't have friends and that makes them unhappy, but often the reason they don't, paradoxically, is that they're too busy trying to convince someone to be their friend. They try too hard and they come across to others as too insecure. This is off-putting to people, and they tend to avoid the person who seems to try over-hard to be their friend. The best way to make friends, I think, is to just be pleasant, friendly, and positive. Don't be critical of people, especially your friends, and especially your guy friends, either behind their backs or to their faces. A person who never has anything bad to say about others will always have friends.

Once in a while a critical word has to be said, of course, but it'll be meaningless at best and hurtful at worst, unless it's rare and done with complete kindness. A person who is always complaining or criticizing is not pleasant to be around and will not have good, devoted friends, and will not be happy. A person who gives others the impression that her life is miserable is going to find that after a while people just don't want to hear it, and they're not going to want to be around her.

I hope this makes sense to you, honey. Maybe as you read it you can think of people you know who are examples of the things I'm talking about....

All my love,

How Serious Is the Chinese Threat?

There's been much in the news about the rapid growth of the Chinese military and a lot of speculation as to what Beijing's intentions are in building such a formidable force. Strategy Page has a good piece on this topic that offers some perspective. They think that the Chinese threat is primarily cyber theft and cyber warfare but not so much in the realm of conventional warfare:
Western military leaders are having a hard time figuring out what Chinese military strategy is. It’s becoming clear that China is not looking for a war, as that would turn the population against the communist dictatorship that still runs the country.

The communist leaders survive mainly by ensuring that the economy keeps growing. Any kind of war would endanger that, especially if the foe were someone with a large navy (like the U.S. or Japan). Yet China is fighting a war and they're winning. China has, for over a decade, been quietly fighting its way into Western computer networks and stealing military and technology secrets....Lawsuits have been more effective in fighting this than any military or diplomatic efforts, but most of the time the Chinese get away with the theft.

There is another aspect of the Chinese "Quiet War" that has not garnered much attention, and that is the large quantity of stolen military tech and data that (in theory) enables the Chinese to deceive many high-tech Western systems. Particularly vulnerable are electronic warfare, communications, and satellite based systems. Interfering with satellite communications or taking over control of satellites is a major nightmare. With the quantity of data China has stolen such meddling becomes possible. The Chinese are not going to reveal what they can do until they have to do it.
Strategy Page has this to say about their rapid accumulation of military hardware:
Are the Chinese really backing away from preparations for conventional war? Consider the evidence. First, China is reducing the size of its armed forces, by over a million troops in the last decade and still going. China has also doubled its defense spending (to over $100 billion a year) in the last decade. The big mystery is figuring what the Chinese military up to with all this spending? This question's been rattling around inside intelligence agencies, and among diplomats, for the last decade.

China is not buying a lot of high tech weapons but is mainly trying to replace the large quantities of ancient weapons and equipment many of their troops are still equipped with. By world standards the Chinese armed forces are decidedly second rate, although numerous. China spends a lot of money on developing new military technologies but then does not buy a lot of the stuff. Instead they go on to develop the next generation. The Chinese appear to be trying to catch up with the West in the quality of their military tech, before building a lot of it.
Nor are the Chinese without their problems:
Chinese military analysts, commanders, and politicians decry the sorry state of their military leadership, training, and doctrine. It's easier to build new weapons than it is to train and maintain troops capable of using them effectively. The Chinese are more concerned with that but are having a hard time making it happen.
How combat ready are the forces Beijing would need to rely on if hostilities broke out?
Technically, a lot of Chinese gear is well built....Chinese have the talent and persistence to acquire the needed management and technical skills. It takes time and Chinese leaders like to take the long view. That means realizing that current Chinese armed forces are not so good. Peacetime soldiers in general and Chinese ones in particular develop a lot of bad habits that translate into defeats early in a war. But in a world with nuclear weapons the old Chinese strategy of fighting a long war and grinding down a superior (man-for-man) force no longer works.

If you use conventional forces you strike first and fast, then call for peace talks before the nukes are employed. This situation does not work to China's advantage. Chinese generals are going through the motions of creating a well-trained and led army, like many Western nations have, but are making very slow progress. Meanwhile, the Americans are particularly admired, with all their practical training methods and combat proven NCOs and officers. China still has far too much corruption in their military establishment and too little initiative and original thinking to create a force that can match the Americans. Going through the motions may work in peace time but not once the shooting starts.
Strategy Page concludes that the Chinese might actually be telling the truth when they say that the alarmingly rapid growth in military procurement is purely defensive:
China insists that its growing military power is for defense only. That makes sense, as a lot of money is going into the navy, which protects the imports (mainly of food and raw materials) and exports (of manufactured goods) that are driving the unprecedented economic growth.

The Chinese try to explain away the military buildup opposite Taiwan as political theater. This may be true, for a failed attempt to take Taiwan by force would not only disrupt the economy (and create a lot of unhappy Chinese), but would be a major failure by the government. Dictatorships cannot survive too many such failures or too many angry citizens.