“Afflictions sent by Providence melt the constancy of the noble minded but confirm the obduracy of the vile. The same furnace that hardens clay liquefies gold.” — Charles Caleb Colton, c. 1820
I just returned from a week in Phoenix. Some time away in the land of perpetual sun gave me an opportunity to reflect, amid early morning walks in the desert.
Yet it wasn’t until my return yesterday that I found the red thread for the week.
Arriving home last night, I realized that today is April 14. A day that always affects my mood.
As a student of history, I’m acutely aware of events of the past. And April 14 marks two solemn occasions less than fifty years apart: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who was shot on the evening of April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theater, and the sinking of the Titanic, which struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic at 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912.
Every year, I reflect on the events that led up to and resulted from each of these two tragedies, feeling a sense of sadness and loss, but also contentment and hope in their aftermaths.
How is it possible that the tragic death of one of America’s greatest presidents and of more than 1,500 souls could be something to evoke any kind of positivity?
In short, there is hope and positivity in nearly everything, if you are willing to look for it.
The Chickens Knew
In On the Banks of Plum Creek, the fourth book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, the family was beset by a plague of grasshoppers. As they fell from the sky, the grasshoppers enveloped everything on the ground, and began eating their way through trees and wheat fields.
Yet there was a glimmer of hope: the chickens, who normally were used to chasing grasshoppers around the yard and not catching them. But in the deluge, they simply stretched out their necks and consumed insect after insect.
Laura’s mother managed to see the silver lining in the cloud of grasshoppers:
“Well, we won’t have to buy feed for the hens,” said Ma. “There’s no great loss without some gain.”
“The disaster takes care of everything.” — Maurice Blanchot, 1980
Two Tragedies, One Lesson
Similarly, with President Lincoln’s assassination, his fame and accomplishments only grew stronger in death. That he was able to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, get Congress to sign legislation outlining the 13th Amendment, and give such powerful and timeless speeches—the Gettysburg Address, his Second Annual Message to Congress, and his Second Inaugural Address—all in the span of four short years, make his towering achievements all the more impressive.
His death shocked the nation, but out of his loss was born greater attention to the timeless virtues he helped us consider.
With the Titanic, we witnessed the terrible result of man’s vanity—the audacity to fly in the face of nature (“God himself could not sink this ship,” Captain Edward J. Smith brazenly declared.)—when greeted with the reality of an iceberg and a poor design.
In the aftermath of the 1,500 deaths in the frigid ocean that night, hearings uncovered a sad fact: that the ship was designed according to all laws and regulations of the day; but those rules hadn’t kept pace with technology.
The tragedy resulted in new regulations requiring ships to carry enough lifeboats for all passengers, and engineers redesigned the watertight compartments of the Titanic's sister ship.
Each of these situations, and hundreds of others we can probably conjure up, can leave us with feelings of sorrow and hopelessness. And while it’s important to acknowledge our grief, it’s just as important to determine how we move forward.
A leader’s job is to find the way forward and to encourage others along. To look for the glimmers of hope and resultant lessons that emerge from unfortunate events.
Like the phoenix, the mythological bird that rose from the ashes of its predecessor and gave its name to the city at the center of the Valley of the Sun, we have an opportunity to shine brightly in the aftermath of calamity.
We just need to seek out the positive.
Don’t miss the follow-up issue of Timeless & Timely:
We’ll have more about the power of positive in Friday’s newsletter for premium subscribers.
Meanwhile, please join the next episode of Timeless Leadership on Thursday, April 15 at noon ET / 10:00 am PT, as we discuss the virtues and principles of great leaders. This week, our topic is Optimism.
Our guest is executive coach, psychologist, and author Harry Cohen, Ph.D., whose book Be the Sun, Not the Salt, extols the virtues of heliotropic leadership. Catch it live on Fireside Chat, where you can participate in the discussion.
Premium subscribers also get the recorded version on Friday.
Recommended: these three previous newsletters in which some of the above topics were covered.
Renewal (springtime, holidays, the Apollo moon landing, and thoughts on the pandemic)
Humility or Futility (a great read on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic)
Exposing Our Imperfections (a look at the power and danger of vanity)
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.