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History Teaches Humility
History is famous for its habit of teaching us about ourselves and our circumstances. We are not always famous for paying attention, however, causing us to experience moments that are both painful and unnecessary. When I look back at recent American history, I am reminded of another time the nation was at war with itself. It was just as unnecessary then as it is now.
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Inflation was at a crippling high, racial unrest fed riots in the streets, universities were hotbeds of discontent and cultural revolt, three political assassinations, a president who was both despised and supported by hardcore bases, and generational differences over an unpopular war divided the country and even families. It was a time when the nation was angry with itself, so much so that most of our allies questioned America's survival. The years between 1965 and 1975 were tough on America. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago became a flash point, and the battle took to the streets. America was in trouble, and everyone knew it. There was right, the side you agreed with, and wrong, which was everyone else. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't civil. But the music was good. The music was very good.
Here we are again
Political and cultural wars are again at full throttle. Today's contest is of a different sort but just as critical. The times are indeed challenging. Are we up to them?
Having lived through the last time this happened at this scale, I note one difference between then and now. Today, no one is interested in building understanding, searching out wisdom, and acknowledging the good in their opposite number. Always a nation of sharp divisions and political angst, America today seems less interested in finding solutions than in destroying the values and institutions that have always helped right the ship of state. We should be investing in them and leaning upon them for truth. Instead of being a nation that applies rigor and objectivity to its problems, we have become a nation of shouters and screamers. We do not build consensus anymore; we spend our energy destroying anything and anyone we do not agree with.
History Speaks: Be careful what you ask for, you may get it
When societies fracture, lofty aims disappear in the wind and hard reality sets in, a reality usually determined by the strongest hardcore, most impassioned, charismatic, and politically savvy players. Empowered by rhetoric that moves the masses, they set out to make things right ... their way and only their way. Think French Revolution and Bolshevik Revolution. Said another way, history tells us that when societies break down, chaos takes control, and no one can be certain of the outcome. The Bolsheviks were not agitating with the goal of establishing a system that would lead to Stalin's legacy.
History Speaks: Courage, Humility, and Critical Thinking are tools of repair and reconstruction
How has the nation repaired and renewed its character following previous dark spells? After the Revolutionary War, it was by coming together to forge a common identity and character. Following the Great Depression, it was by programs that supported development and human capital. In the aftermath of the Viet Nam War and social upheavals of the 1960's and 1970's, it was a return to a vision of a brighter, better America. In each case, someone had to lead, someone had to follow. In each case, three characteristics played important roles.
Courage recognizes that someone has to do something to change the course. That someone should be each of us. We each have a voice, and we can each choose to use it for moderation, civility, respect, honor, and truth. One way we can exercise courage is by doing our own work to determine who we believe will be the best leaders for our nation. How do we do this? By turning off the talking heads and doing our own independent research and thinking. Be willing to listen to thoughtful opinions that differ from your own and judge both fairly and clearly. Then, be willing to be a voice for what you believe is true and right.
Humility begins with an appreciation that everyone does indeed have a voice and should be heard, and recognizes that in listening and considering, one may find unrecognized truth which must then be supported. Humility means, in part, that one accepts the notion that they might be wrong and someone else right, and be willing to accept such as a good outcome.
Critical thinking, using one's intellect and independent values to test and prove beliefs, information, sources, and agendas is the engine of compromise and resolution. To qualify as being helpful, it must depend upon open minds, empirical evidence, unfaltering integrity, and rigorous objectivity.
With these tools in hand, we can repair, heal, and reconstruct our institutions and nation. But we must work as partners in the effort. This does not mean we will all agree on everything and join around the campfire to sing Kumbaya in perfect harmony. It does mean we will agree to work together with transparency and integrity to discover truth, to support it, and to build on it.
Truth will set us free - if we are willing to search it out, elevate it, and honor it with our best heart.
"One man can make a difference and every man should try." Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis