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[Editor's note: I'm touching two third rails in this piece — politics and religion — I apologize in advance if you find these off-putting. They simply provide examples of the leadership behavior on which I promised to focus and are important aspects of our lives.]
“Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak...examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” — Thessolonians 5:14-21
Have you recently read a story or seen an example of someone doing something so good, so heartfelt, so genuine that it maybe made you well up with tears a little bit?
You probably witnessed someone being a decent human being. It felt good, right?
But how crazy is it that these things feel like the exception? We're bombarded with so much other crap every single day, so the default "good human" mode seems extraordinary, rather than ordinary.
Decency used to be something everyone strived for. Our leaders were people we admired; perhaps they even spoke publicly about virtues. George Washington wrote a handbook called The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. (Yes, it's still in print.)
Earlier this week, I quoted from Teddy Roosevelt's “The Man in the Arena” speech. In another passage, he uses the word “decency”:
“We should abhor the so-called "practical" men whose practicality assumes the shape of that peculiar baseness which finds its expression in disbelief in morality and decency, in disregard of high standards of living and conduct.”
It’s not unthinkable to believe that we’re in the midst of a collapse, when disbelief in morality and decency are pervasive. And what ought we to do if that’s the case?
Should we mourn the loss of decency? Should we shrug and move along, accepting this new reality with a sense of resignation and try to do our best?
Or should we reject it as unacceptable and claim what we know is our cultural legacy, beating back the forces of apathy and enmity? That is, should we fight for decency?
“Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward” ― Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1854
The battle may seem impossible, the cause insurmountable. Like the six hundred Light Brigade who faced well-positioned and heavily-supplied artillery at the Battle of Balaclava, our chances may seem slim.
While the fight for decency isn’t a military contest, I’m reminded of a phrase my mother constantly drilled into me that echoes opposing forces doing battle: “Kill them with kindness.”
It's a watered-down (and perhaps a slightly violent) version of the Sermon on the Mount, recounted in the Bible:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” — Jesus Christ, English Standard Version (Matthew 5:38–42)
There’s a similar passage in another of the Gospels, called the Sermon on the Plain:
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” — Jesus Christ, English Standard Version (Luke 6:27–31)
These two passages, taken together, encapsulate the central tenet of Christianity. What a world apart from the vengeful, angry God that the world until then feared from the Old Testament!
Help other people and treat them like you’d like to be treated: you don’t have to subscribe to the Christian religion to understand and appreciate this concept. It’s common human decency. A kind of behavior that transcends religious affiliations or geographical borders.
Perhaps one reason that Christianity caught on was from the inherent goodness exhibited by Jesus Christ. If the two passages above are true examples of his inspirational behavior, then it’s no surprise that others wanted to follow.
Truly decent people make you want to be decent too when you’re in their company. They inspire goodness. Leaders who display genuine decency make us want to be like them.
You watched the debate on Tuesday night, or you at least heard about it in the nonstop news coverage that followed. What we saw was one thoroughly indecent man, and another man who was trying his best to be decent.
If I were in Joe Biden’s place, I don't know if I could have held it together. But amid the barrage of interruptions and attacks, he managed to mostly keep us cool. Oh sure, there was the “Keep yapping” and the highly-publicized, “Will you shut up, man?” But overall, I was convinced that here’s a man who could keep his cool in the Oval Office.
Writing in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer made an astute observation indicating the moral chasm between the two candidates:
“More than any other moment of the debate, Trump’s response to Biden’s invocation of his dead son—attempting to make him ashamed of his surviving one—threw the dispositions of the two men into sharp relief. I wondered how Hunter must have felt to see his father speak of his pride in his brother, only for his own name to be brandished as a weapon to inflict shame on his father. And I thought about Biden’s response, which was to reaffirm his pride in Hunter, the troubled son living in the indelible shadow of a departed war hero. In the midst of being attacked by a president trying to wield his own family against him, Biden’s instinct was to reassure Hunter that he is also loved, that nothing could make his father see him as a loser.”
What a beautiful moment.
I was reminded of the extreme empathy I wrote about in August (“The Emptiness of Indifference”) and of little Braydon Harrison, who had a stutter like Joe, and with Joe’s encouragement, spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
So what to my wondering eyes should appear yesterday? This video from The Lincoln project:
The contrast couldn't be more extreme.
Two more brief examples, this time from Twitter:
The latest news is that the president and first lady have contracted COVID-19. Given that they’ve shown disdain, indifference, and a consistent lack of empathy for others, it’s tempting to give in to schadenfreude and mock them. Particularly as the president has mocked others for wearing a mask and even called the pandemic a “hoax.”
Decency demands more.
Decency requires us to rise above that base temptation and to model the behaviors we hope our fellow citizens should exhibit.
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” — Mohandas Gandhi, 1913
Which kind of leader would you rather be around? Do you want one that makes you bury your head in the sand (“I don’t read his tweets,” is the weak excuse some Senators have given)?
Or one who doesn’t make you keep a finger hovering over the mute button on your remote? A leader who aligns with the majority of your values, or one who fits that single issue you always vote on, even if the rest of his behavior is antithetical to the teachings of your religion?
If we’re fighting for decency and integrity in our leaders and in our children, we would do well to remember Roosevelt imploring us to be exemplars. Paul Harvey knew that when he wrote Remember These Things in 1952:
Decency is on the ballot.
Before I close, I’ve got one more story for you. While I usually like to share a tale about a historical figure (what, the Bible wasn't good enough for you?), I have a more modern parable here.
The 1993 movie Dave starring Kevin Kline was a modern-day Mr. Smith Goes to Washington meets The Prince and the Pauper. Dave is a small-town businessman who owns an employment agency. He also is a dead ringer for the president of the United States.
The president suffers a debilitating stroke, and his administration, hellbent on accomplishing their goals, isn’t going to let an incapacitated president stand in their way. So they hire Dave as something of a stand-in.
He eventually catches on to their nefarious plans and simultaneously gets to know the vice president, who is outside of the political machinations within the administration.
In the penultimate scene, Dave is in the halls of Congress, preparing to give an address, when he stops, pulls out paperwork, and admits to the wrongdoings and violations of the law that he and his administration have committed.
The legislators were speechless, taken aback by this admission of guilt. And here’s where he speaks out:
“Allegations of wrongdoing have also been made against Vice President Nance. Now, as this evidence will prove, at no time and in no way was the Vice President involved in any of this affair. Bob just made all that up. Vice President Nance is a good and decent public servant, and I want to apologize for any pain that this has caused him or his family.”
Now that’s integrity and decency.
But watch the clip just beyond that part as well, where Dave says:
“And while we're on the subject, I'd like to apologize to the American people. You see, I forgot that I was hired to do a job for you — and it's just a temp job at a that. I forgot that I had 250 million people who were paying me to make there lives a little bit better, and I didn't live up to my part of the bargain.
“See, I think there are certain things you should expect from a president. I ought to care more about you than I do about me. I ought to care more about what's right than about what's popular. I ought to be willing to give this whole thing up for something I believe in.”
Selflessness. Integrity. Belief in something.
I don’t know about you, but I was raised to do what’s right—even when it’s the difficult thing to do.
We may be fighting an uphill battle at the moment, but it’s worth the effort.
We can believe in decency.
“In the present case it is a little inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible to any public office of trust or profit in the Republic. But I do not repine, for I am a subject of it only by force of arms.” ― H.L. Mencken, 1956
The Most Illuminating Moment of the Debate (The Atlantic)
Decency involves taking care of those around you. 'Move fast and break things' isn't a worthy slogan. How about Move fast and take responsibility? (Seth's Blog)
This veteran is traveling the U.S., mowing the lawn of other veterans in every single state. There was a surprise waiting for him when he reached Michigan. (ClickOnDetroit)
"Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing." — Abraham Lincoln
It seems like a massive oversight at this point, but America's founding father left us with one fatal flaw: they assumed our leaders would have some basic decency. (Salon)
Can we recover what's been eroded? This vulgar man has squandered our decency. (The Washington Post)
The performative hand-wringing about the integrity of American democracy is a ritual older than can democracy itself. (The Appeal)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” — Fred Rogers
🎧 Welcome to the Neighborhood is a Mister Rogers tribute podcast. Each episode takes us through an aspect of the personality of Fred Rogers, beginning with "The Kindness of Fred Rogers." If ever there was a guide for life, these simple yet profound messages ring true and provide everything a person could need. I like it just the way it is.
📒 Be the Sun, Not the Salt puts the heliotropic effect, the tendency of living organisms to turn toward the sun, into human terms. Are you like the Sun on leaves of the plant, providing nourishment, encouraging growth and drawing people toward you? Or are you like salt on the plant's roots, causing others to wither, becoming less than they could be? Perhaps a bit of both? Be the Sun, Not the Salt will help you identify your behavior while providing common sense suggestions to improve your everyday relationships and encounters.
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.