Zen at Church: The Plan of Happiness… or Suffering?

By: shenpa warrior
January 25, 2012

I read recently that the average adult in the world earns $8,000 a year. The author suggested that if you’re lucky enough to have a fridge and you’re not worried about dysentery, you’re doing quite well. (Side note: A friend of mine recently complained that her family on Oregon Trail all got dysentery and her daughter was snatched by an eagle. Apparently Oregon Trail is harder than it used to be.)

Regardless, we may not all have needed help from the “food stamp President,” but most of us still suffer in some way or another. According to research on infant development, about 10% of young children have a fundamentally secure relationship with their caregivers. The rest of us – the 90% (NOT the 99) – are insecure in one way or another, to varying degrees. This insecurity shows up as emptiness, depression, anxiety, feelings of unworthiness, or negative self-talk. Many have an inability to trust that good things will happen.

We’re all in the same soup. Many of us wonder how much we can take. Even amidst times of joy – we are often confronted with the unbearable. It may seem small, but one of the things I find to be nearly unbearable is the fact that, as a parent, despite my efforts, I will pass some of my own flaws onto my children. That my own worries may become their worries.

None of my concerns are unique – some have it better, some much, much worse. One thing about white privilege is you can always look at someone else and think, “At least I don’t have it THAT bad.”

Yet, no matter the background, many are confronted with the unbearable. Hidden shame, depression, disease, addiction, betrayal, failure. Chronic pain. Disappointment in parenting. Not to mention the lack of basic needs for so many…

A psychologist and mentor of mine has spent decades studying infant development, and is currently exploring how it impacts spirituality (much of his work has inspired this series). He has worked with people with drug addictions, with street-dependent youth, with the “1%” who live in giant houses on grassy hills, and with college students.

With all of these populations, some things remain the same.

Life can be so hard, almost unbearable, for so many. Life might be kicking you in the teeth. It probably already has.

My questions:

  • If this is the plan of happiness, why is it filled with so much suffering?
  • What then, does happiness mean, if not “happy” or “usually happy”?
  • Are happiness and suffering not mutually exclusive?

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49 Responses to Zen at Church: The Plan of Happiness… or Suffering?

  1. chris on January 25, 2012 at 2:53 AM

    Perhaps a scripture that may apply to your fascinating post is the Savior’s words, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (KJV).

    The NIV translation is enlightening: “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

    We know the Savior was described as a man of sorrow acqauinted with grief and yet He promised His followers peace. I would submit that peace and sorrow are not mutally exclusive and have devoted a blog to that concept.

    With that said, I believe that Buddhism is very helpful in teaching anyone, including Mormons, have to experience more peace and less sorrow when that endure life’s tribulations.
    Thich Nhat Nanh teaches that principle in his writings. For example, he says, “Mindfulness is the foundation of happiness. A person who is unhappy cannot make peace….Mindfulness is the practice of stoping and becoming aware of what we are thinking and doing. The more we are mindful of our thoughts, speech, and actions, the more concentration we develop. With concentration, insight into the nature of our own suffering and the suffering of others arises. We then know what to do and what not to do in order the live joyfully and in peace with our surroundings.”

    The Scriptures say to “be still and know that I am God,” but many lack the knowledge or training to know how to implement that invaluable teaching.

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  2. NewlyHousewife on January 25, 2012 at 4:45 AM

    I was taught the “Plan of Happiness” related to being happy in the eternities, not so much modern life.

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  3. Jake on January 25, 2012 at 5:14 AM

    NewlyHousewife, ‘Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.’ Men (not women) are that they might have joy. Obviously, the implication of this is that the happiness being in the eternities and not in the modern world is just for women and not men (who get joy now), perhaps to give women hope and placate them to live with sexism,prejudice and being treated us as inferior sex now because one day in the eternities it will be better and this will be gone and women may be allowed by men to have joy and be happy. For us men, however, we get joy now.

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  4. Stephen Marsh on January 25, 2012 at 5:31 AM

    There is so much lack of joy because the natural man is an enemy to God …

    Otherwise I’d just have to quote Chris:

    I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.

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  5. hawkgrrrl on January 25, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    Jesus was described as a man of sorrows. We are supposed to be like Jesus. Yet we call it the plan of happiness. Conundrum.

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  6. Howard on January 25, 2012 at 8:19 AM

    Suffering is a path to happiness.

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  7. shenpa warrior on January 25, 2012 at 8:47 AM

    @Chris – Thank you for the complement and your thoughts. I have been meaning to read some Thich Nhat Hanh for a while now (so far it has mostly been Pema Chodron, the Dalai Lama, and currently Tara Brach (a Buddhist psychologist)… Re: peace and sorrow – I like that idea of those two experiences not being mutually exclusive. I do think feeling “happy” and “depressed” (for example) are exclusive (at least in a strict clinical sense). I LOVE the idea of being still – and I agree – mindfulness is one potentially helpful way to implement that.

    @NewlyHousewife – Interesting idea – I have heard that as well, although I think in my experience I was also taught a lot about how happy we can be if we follow the plan – as in, we can be happy now (of course, I also heard plenty about trials, so…)

    @Jake – Ah yes, don’t you love the English language? I prefer the Japanese scriptures in this case – literally, “people are that they might have joy.” :)

    @Stephen – So does it follow then, that if one “puts off the natural man [or woman]” then one will suffer less? I’m not sure about that… Are we even SUPPOSED to suffer less?

    @hawkgrrrl – Interesting insight… it seems to me that Jesus experiences the full range of emotions and experiences – so perhaps we are meant to as well, regardless of our level of righteousness.

    @Howard – So men are, that they might be happy, once they have suffered enough? (Not to be silly, I’m just thinking about it. :) )

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  8. ji on January 25, 2012 at 9:23 AM

    In President Uchtdorf’s talk about the forget-me-not flower, one of his five propositions was to not forget to be happy now. Indeed, I recommend his entire talk: http://lds.org/general-conference/2011/10/forget-me-not?lang=eng. Happiness can be found in this life, if that happiness is centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Moments of sadness? Yes. Moments of happiness? I certainly hope so.

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  9. Nick Literski on January 25, 2012 at 9:25 AM

    There is no need for suffering. Suffering is not inherent in our experiences. Rather, it’s an interpretation that we impose on our experiences. If I sit unmoving in meditation for an extended period of time, I may begin to notice sensations in my legs. At that point, I have several choices:

    (a) I can reposition my legs in the event that I’m not particularly committed to stillness for my meditation, which may be useful for my circulation;
    (b) I can be present with those sensations without judging them, which will discipline my mind and aid in my meditation; or,
    (c) I can judge those sensations as an unwelcome negative imposition, at which point I will find myself suffering.

    Experience isn’t suffering until we choose to interpret it as such.

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  10. Andrew S. on January 25, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    ^wait a minute,

    So the awkward crosslegged position that people sometimes take for meditation is SUPPOSED to make your legs fall asleep? For the sake of teaching you to be “present” during those sensations?

    One thing I would say that seems to be a commonality among a lot of religions is that it’s not really about having pleasuring or lacking pain…but rather about cultivating a mindset that allows you to have *peace* throughout unpleasantness. So, I think that using words like “joy” or “peace” are more accurate than using words like “happy.” You can be in a lot of pain, in very uncomfortable situations, but still have an inward peace.

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  11. Nick Literski on January 25, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    So the awkward crosslegged position that people sometimes take for meditation is SUPPOSED to make your legs fall asleep? For the sake of teaching you to be “present” during those sensations?

    LOL! No, but those sensations are pretty common, especially for those just beginning. Besides, nothing says you have to sit in any one particular position. :)

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  12. Trev on January 25, 2012 at 1:02 PM

    I’ve always found Moses 5:10-11 interesting on this question of joy in life:

    “10 And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.

    ” 11 And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had aseed, and never should have bknown good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.”

    I’ve always found it interesting that Adam specifies joy *in this life* and the “joy of redemption” to begin in this life where transgression also happens. This makes sense to me. Deferred joy in “payment” for suffering just never made sense to me. Even with the “repentance process,” in Alma 36 Alma describes an *immediate* joy as soon as he asks for forgiveness. The joy comes merely after 1) deep realization of guilt (can we repent–are we even accountable if we don’t fundamentally know we’re sinning?) and 2) asking for forgiveness. “Restitution” seems not to be a condition, though it flows naturally from his experience and (presumably) compounds his joy (or why would he persist in doing it?).

    I find it fascinating also that Alma’s joy is “as great” as was his suffering, but the suffering only came after transgression, JUST LIKE Adam and Eve’s “joy in… redemption” could only come AFTER they transgressed.

    I think we’re way too hard on ourselves in our culture, and if we really understood the nature of the Atonement and God’s expectations there would naturally be more joy–real joy, not just a “peace”–in life even in spite of inevitable trial.

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  13. Will on January 25, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    We need to understand the plan of happiness. The main purpose of the plan of salvation is for growth and most growth (almost all) occurs with hardships. This is why the term “and it came to pass” is repeated so much in the Book of Mormon. It describes hardships, trials, tests and temptations that passed. It describes these events and communicates how the people reacted and acted during these events.

    Oh, and a final note, let’s fire the foodstamp president.

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  14. Trev on January 25, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    OOPS!

    “I find it fascinating also that Alma’s joy is “as great” as was his suffering, but the suffering only came after transgression, JUST LIKE Adam and Eve’s “joy in… redemption” could only come AFTER they transgressed.”

    should read:

    I find it fascinating also that Alma’s joy is “as great” as was his suffering, but this joy only came after transgression (transgression -> great suffering -> equally great joy), JUST LIKE Adam and Eve’s “joy in… redemption” could only come AFTER they transgressed.

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  15. FireTag on January 25, 2012 at 6:54 PM

    I tend to agree with your response to hawkgrrrl in #7. I think reality on a fundamental level is designed to allow us to experience ALL the possibilities of our existence so that we can better be uniquely US.

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  16. hawkgrrrl on January 25, 2012 at 8:13 PM

    To me, finding Zen is being aware of suffering but not attached to it. Detachment is the key to peace. I think that peace is partly at odds with the notion of getting involved in others’ lives and serving them. We feel peace when we’ve discharged our duty, but not when we really get into the messy world of relating to people. Then we experience their suffering as our own and care about what happens to them. It’s much easier to detach.

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  17. Bob on January 25, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    #16:hawkgrrrl,
    I don’t know why people suffer. Two months ago, I had a bad case of shingles on my butt.
    I suffered! I did not mistake this for happiness. I did not grow’ from this. I didn’t find that: “Zen is being aware of suffering but not attached to it”.

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  18. shenpa warrior on January 25, 2012 at 9:09 PM

    I agree that attachments to outcomes, or to things, or to “the way things should be” or etc. can cause suffering. However, when it comes to others, I think “non-attachment” is just another form of attachment. Attachment to others per se doesn’t cause suffering. The problem is we are not attached securely enough.

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  19. Bradley on January 25, 2012 at 10:28 PM

    Now is the time to prepare to meet God. We can only have faith that his purposes are perfect, and when we finally grok the whole thing we’ll be completely blown away.

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  20. Jeff Spector on January 26, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    For the most part, what passes for “suffering” in the LDS world is, in no way, close to what goes on in the world with starvation, disease and war.

    So, we need to put this in ths in the proper perspective. Many folks have challenges and trials in their life and some level of suffering. But what some call “suffering” is a “walk in the park” in other places in the world.

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  21. Howard on January 26, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    Suffering except physical suffering is optional and some of physical suffering is optional as well. Suffering is a motivator to change our situation and a motivator to learn how to not suffer. The lesson leads to more than peace when coupled with autonomy it leads to happiness.

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  22. annegb on January 26, 2012 at 8:54 AM

    Howard, you’re full of crap. Tell that to a Holocaust survivor.

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  23. shenpa warrior on January 26, 2012 at 9:23 AM

    @Jeff – Right on. There are always those who are suffering in ostensibly much more painful and horrific ways. However, for the sake of clinical/life-utility, I’ve found that for the most part, comparison in terms of “I shouldn’t feel this way because I don’t have it THAT bad” can not be very helpful, and sometimes immobilizing. I’m using “suffering” here to describe something that almost everyone has, to some degree or another, regardless of their circumstances.

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  24. shenpa warrior on January 26, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    @Howard – could you expand on how non-physical suffering is optional?

    I am curious, because it seems to me that some – if not many – people suffer greatly in non-physical ways, despite *all they can do* – in fact, we have examples of that in the scriptures even. The Apostle Paul suffered and asked God to take it away, and God told him that it would remain with him – in other words, it was not optional.

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  25. May on January 26, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    The notion of suffering has greatly impacted how I view the concept of God. If we believe in a God that is very involved and micromanages our lives…then it’s clear he’s choosing how and when he intervenes. This is a troubling concept, and I’m much more happy now that I don’t attribute either suffering or happiness to God. I figure that if there is in fact a God, he’s not involved at all.

    Sidenote: It’s interesting that the “plan of salvation” from my childhood was re-branded the “plan of happiness”. I really wonder about the conversation that prompted the change.

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  26. Howard on January 26, 2012 at 12:46 PM

    Non physical suffering comes from our unwillingness to accept things as they are instead clinging to how we want them to be. When give up our desire for things to be different and accept them as they are non physical suffering ends.

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  27. Jeff Spector on January 26, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    May,

    “If we believe in a God that is very involved and micromanages our lives…”

    I wonder if god only intervenes in the lives of folks who process belief in Him?

    It’s hard to explain why good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. if we are supposed to learn from the things that happen to us, how do those who do not beleive in God learn anything from their experiences?

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  28. Bob on January 26, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    #27: Jeff,
    “How do those who do not beleive in God learn anything from their experiences”
    ?
    I believe those who stop living their lives by Faith, learn to live their lives by Courage.

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  29. Jeff Spector on January 26, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    “learn to live their lives by Courage.”

    Huh???

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  30. Bob on January 26, 2012 at 4:32 PM

    #29: Jeff,
    You face the hard or unknown by reliance on yourself(Courage), not a God.
    Reliance: Certainty based on past experience.

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  31. shenpa warrior on January 26, 2012 at 6:39 PM

    It’s a topic for another post, but I would argue that even without “God” or anything we might put in that role, we can never fully rely on ourselves… at least not effectively. Someone might not be a believer in “God” per se, but I would argue that they still draw “courage” or have “faith” (i.e. “trust”) in something outside of themselves, even if that something is an amalgamation of millions of internalized interactions with caregivers or other important people. Still others who do not believe in a God are able to have faith/trust in mystery, in the unknown, etc.

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  32. Bob on January 26, 2012 at 7:34 PM

    #31:shenpa warrior,
    Listen to the words of “Come-Come Ye Saints”. Is that a song about Faith or Courage? Is it about relying fully on God, or their courage to “Carry on !”?
    How about “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel”? Is that about the courage to work it out for yourself___ or asking God to push the wagon?

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  33. shenpa warrior on January 26, 2012 at 8:29 PM

    My apologies, I’m not following your response…please expound.

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  34. Bob on January 26, 2012 at 8:53 PM

    #33:shenpa warrior,
    I see Faith as believing God is going to take care of you. I see Courage as taking things on your own shoulders. Courage does not need a God.
    In #27, Jeff asked: ” How do those who do not beleive in God learn anything from their experiences”? I am saying they come to understand from their lives what it will take to do something__by themselves. They then, by their Courage__do it.

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  35. shenpa warrior on January 27, 2012 at 4:48 AM

    @Bob – Thanks – I get that now. I think I see “believing God is going to take care of you” as anxiety, and “taking things on your own shoulders” as avoidance – I think both of these approaches to the ultimate nature of the universe/reality/God/whatever come from a place of insecurity – they are both a grasp for something stable to hang on to – both are completely valid responses to fear/pain/the unknown etc.

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  36. Jeff Spector on January 27, 2012 at 8:26 AM

    Bob,

    “They then, by their Courage__do it.”

    Well, it can be just as courageous to follow what you think God wants and that it might have eternal consequences.

    Not sure I think the atheists are all that courageous.

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  37. Bob on January 27, 2012 at 9:18 AM

    #36: Jeff,
    Then we see things differently. I think some people put their trust in God because of their fears, not courage. I think others take on what they fear by reliance on themself, not a God. I don’t think being courageous makes you an atheist. But the settling of the West was more about personal courage than faith. Even though most settlers believed in God.

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  38. Jeff Spector on January 27, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    bob,

    ” I think some people put their trust in God because of their fears, not courage.”

    Of course, there are people that do that. But, in this day, it seems it is more courageous to say you beleive in God and have a moral code, then not.

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  39. shenpa warrior on January 27, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    People can use God/religion or use hard atheism out of fear or something to grasp.

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  40. Bob on January 27, 2012 at 9:58 AM

    #38: Jeff,
    Most people say they believe in God. How is that courageous?
    You do not have to believe in God to have a moral code. Most ‘crime shows’ on TV are based on moral codes, not a God.

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  41. Jeff Spector on January 27, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    bob,

    Many people say they believe in God but do not act in such a way as to demonstrate it. That is their right.

    But people who take a strong stand for their belief in God and a strong moral code, whether you agree or not, are often mocked in our society, especially by atheists.

    We have a billboard put up in our town recently by an atheist group what says, “God is an imaginary friend; Choose reality, it will be better for all of us.”

    That is mocking at its finest.

    On the moral code, in spite of atheist’s belief, moral codes have been around for thousands of years and are derived from religious principles and religious writings. There is no evidence that an atheist moral code even exists. So, it is very apparent that any moral code, if any that an atheist might profess to, is clearly been brought forth by religion.

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  42. Frank Pellett on January 27, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    41 – Jeff
    It is part of our basic beliefs that those who do not know anything about God are given “The Light of Christ”, which gives basic direction on right and wrong. Whether or not a person adheres to a particular religion or believes in a particular god, they can still create and maintain a correct moral code.

    It is just as mocking to an atheist as the billboard put up in your town.

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  43. Jeff Spector on January 27, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    Frank,

    “Whether or not a person adheres to a particular religion or believes in a particular god, they can still create and maintain a correct moral code.”

    the Light of Christ prompts all as to what is right or wrong, not prevents them from having a set of beliefs or acting a certain way. The LoC is nothing more than allowing us a choice between good or evil. It does not determine actions nor philosphy.

    all I am saying is that a strong moral code is derived from tradional religious teachings going back thousands of year.

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  44. Bob on January 27, 2012 at 12:05 PM

    #41: Jeff,
    Wheat and Tares has a post “What if God was your next door neighbour”? IMO, that is not so different from your billboard.
    Again, watch “Law and Order”, or NCIS. You will see moral codes without religion. Agent Gibbs on NCIS, has a VERY high moral code, but never speaks of God.

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  45. Jeff Spector on January 27, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    A TV show? reality?

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  46. Bob on January 27, 2012 at 12:48 PM

    #45: Jeff,
    Do you like the religious moral code of Al-Qaeda better than that of Agent Gibbs on NCIS?

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  47. Jeff Spector on January 27, 2012 at 1:33 PM

    I don’t watch NCIS and we are talking about a moral code, not an immoral code.

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  48. Bob on January 27, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    #47: Jeff,
    I am just looking for some common ground so we could compare. How about the Godfather movies? Seen them? They are all about a strong moral code within a family. How about ‘lonesome Dove’? It’s all about a strong moral code among Cowboys?

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  49. shenpa warrior on January 27, 2012 at 6:27 PM

    FWIW Bob, I’m rather fond of Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

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