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Opinion & Essays - Jun, 2000 Issue #70 

By Lon Woodbury

I have worked with many struggling teens who seem to believe that whatever they want, they should have, and it’s acceptable to do “whatever it takes” to get it. Some might lie, others steal, all manipulate, and a few use violence to get what they want, NOW! Where on earth did so many of these kids get this idea? Why didn’t they learn the importance of boundaries and limits for maintaining a civilized society? 

The source of this “whatever it takes” attitude might be found at least in part, in well-publicized government actions like the one recently taken by Federal agents in Miami, Florida. The government’s action to remove six year old Elias Gonzales from his relatives’ home to return him to his father, impressed me as to how far this country has gone in its attitude that it’s ok to do “what ever it takes” to accomplish a goal. In this case, “what ever it takes” included waving an assault rifle in the face of a terrified six-year-old, clubbing and gassing people both inside and outside the home that got in the way, threatening to shoot unarmed citizens, and treating the Search & Seizure clause of the 4th Amendment as merely a legal obstacle to be manipulated. The point is not that governments sometimes take violent actions; our constitution was established to minimize what its writers perceived as an almost universal tendency. Rather, it seems that there are fewer and fewer limits on what we will allow to be done as long as the goals have broad public support. 

The American people are well known for their problem solving attitude and ability. Popular personal growth seminars promote the philosophy that people should decide what they want to accomplish, then do “whatever it takes” to achieve their objectives. This applies to both personal and professional objectives. 

Any salesman has been to numerous seminars where they are encouraged to set goals for their personal quota, then are taught how to achieve them, being encouraged to do “whatever it takes” to reach their quota. The play, Death of a Salesman, among other things, was about a man fading in his sales career who could no longer do “whatever it takes.”

The same thinking applies to education. Want a college degree? Work an evening job, borrow against your future, spend your parents’ nest egg, do “whatever it takes” to get that all- important sheepskin. 

This thinking permeates our whole culture, including the parents and professionals who work with struggling teens and the poor decisions the teens are making. I often hear parents say they are determined to do “whatever it takes” to get the residential help their child needs, after local resources haven’t helped their child. 

Basically, the concept of “doing whatever it takes” is a healthy and constructive way of thinking that encourages people to focus on the goal, rather than on the obstacles. The basis of a “can- do” culture, this thinking results in great accomplishments both by individuals and by nations. It is one of the most important attitudes motivating the goods and services that make our economy so dynamic, and it inspires the sentiment that in America a person can become whatever they set their minds to, so long as they do “what ever it takes.”

However, this attitude needs to be balanced by a complementary assumption that often remains unsaid, thus is sometimes forgotten. Doing “whatever it takes” needs to be tempered by the assumption that everything should be done within boundaries of truth, honesty and respect for others. When a person does “whatever it takes” with no boundaries, he/she might gain fame, power and/or fortune, but will lose what in the past has been referred to as virtue, resulting in total failure in the long run. This applies to individuals as well as to societies. 

When we do not demand that people doing “whatever it takes” stay within the boundaries of truth, honesty and respect for others, we are rewarding immediate success at a cost. The toll it takes is having to live with the dishonest salesman, the corrupt politician, the manipulative attorney, a government that can take violent action against any of us unannounced, and a general sense of fear of our fellow citizens. Yes, even our fellow citizens will be feared because an ambitious neighbor with no sense of boundaries might take everything we have, given a chance. 

Many writers have suggested reasons why more children are becoming more violent, less respectful, and out-of-control. Some have suggested permissive parents are to blame, others have accused abusive parents, and some have joined the campaign against violence in video games and movies to protect children. These factors of course, play a role. But perhaps the most conspicuous role models our children see are created by what we tolerate in the behaviors and actions of our elected officials and our civil servants. This is real life, not the fantasy of movies and video games, and the good guys, acting in our name, can bargain in bad faith, use extreme violence or threaten violence to accomplish their goals, hide behind legal technicalities, while receiving our praise and rewards. In this way we are demonstrating the value of doing “what ever it takes” with no limits or boundaries. I’m sure the kids are listening. 

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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