Credit: "Sunset After a Storm on the Coast of Sicily" by Andreas Achenbach, 1853 (Public domain: The Met)
"Geniuses differ from ordinary men less in the character of their attention than in the nature of the objects upon which it is successively bestowed." – William James
I have a confession.
As much as I write about things like serenity, patience and this week, kindness, I struggle.
I'm not always the most calm and focused. I lose my patience (especially with my kids). I can say cutting or hurtful things that I later regret.
I'm a work in progress.
And I suppose that's something we all struggle with. It's what we're all working towards.
I'm reminded of the quote I used by Mister Rogers:
"Mutually caring relationships require kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other's achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain. We need to accept the fact that it's not in the power of any human being to provide all these things all the time. For any of us, mutually caring relationships will also always include some measure of unkindness and impatience, intolerance, pessimism, envy, self-doubt, and disappointment."
Even among the most virtuous leaders, there are cracks.
Abraham Lincoln, who was tested mightily during the most divisive time in our nation's history and seemed to have unhuman self-control, found it difficult at times.
Lincoln famously wrote an angry letter to General George Meade after Meade's refusal to pursue and subdue Robert E. Lee's army following the Battle of Gettysburg.
The president poured out his extreme disappointment in the general's judgement, but then folded the letter and put it in a drawer, and never sent it.
In this way, Lincoln was able to rid himself of the negative feelings, but was able to retain a working relationship with Meade.
In a feature about Tom Hanks, a New York Times journalist wrote about how she watched him and his family at the Kennedy Center Honors. His four children — two from his first marriage, early in his career, and two from his second, when he was more established — were all united and singing along, a seemingly well-adjusted family.
The journalist explored this with him, and within herself:
"I told him then that I’d watched his Kennedy Center Honors ceremony probably more times than is appropriate. His older children have weathered divorce and uncertainty. His younger sons have weathered a life of wealth and privilege and I wanted to know how you could be a transient person trying to make a name for yourself in the world and also end up with children that sing along to your songs with great affection when you’re done raising them.
"My children were getting older, the oldest about to turn 12, I told him, and I felt like lately, everything I said was misunderstood — everything was seen as criticism or nagging — and suddenly I could clearly see how a child who used to want to lie in bed with you and watch movies on his birthday could drift toward someone who could barely look at you. Someone who didn’t understand that all your insistence was just about being a good person in the world, and the myriad ways to do that, and the even more myriad ways you could stumble upon the opposite. This coupled with an awareness that being good wasn’t so simple anymore, and that I ran the risk of my children seeing behind the nagging and criticism, down to my basic daily deeds, and finding that I wasn’t so good in the world — that at best, I was neutral.
"It isn’t easy being a parent, not for any of us, he said. 'Somewhere along the line, I figured out, the only thing really, I think, eventually a parent can do is say I love you, there’s nothing you can do wrong, you cannot hurt my feelings, I hope you will forgive me on occasion, and what do you need me to do? You offer up that to them. I will do anything I can possibly do in order to keep you safe. That’s it. Offer that up and then just love them.'”
Not a single one of us is infallible. We discover that nearly every day when we're parents, and we second-guess our actions and motives.
To assume that anyone is immune from criticism is folly. We will all make mistakes. It's part of what it means to be a thinking, reasoning human with values — values that may compete with those that others hold.
But cultural relativism — the concept that there are certain things that may be right for society (rather than ethnocentrism) — has crept into our consciousness, and it's not too much as stretch to extend to thinking that whatever is right for an individual is what they feel is right for them.
This kind of thinking is dangerous, as it can lead to (and has in the past) unbridled and unchecked power. When someone in power refuses to have his judgement questioned, that's tyranny:
"The worst tyrants demand not just to be obeyed but to be treated as incapable of error in every deed and saying… A person whose choices can never be mistaken cannot really have any meaningful plans or objectives, only a series of impulses."
And we can't live by impulse.
The first step is to admit that we've made mistakes and will continue to make them. What we do next is what matters.
When You Screw Up
The Stoics were/are very good at frank self-assessment. In particular, they acknowledged that it is human to err.
But they also reasoned that you can't undo that which has already happened. That you shouldn't waste time and energy worrying about things that are not in your control. And certainly, past actions are out of your control.
So, what can you do when you mess up?
You can't go back. There is only one direction.
Simply move forward.
Moving forward doesn't mean forgetting about what you did, but deliberating what you'll do differently the next time.
The very act of committing to improving and constantly striving to be better is all we can ask from ourselves, whether we're leaders, parents, partners, friends or colleagues.
I'm flawed. But I'm working on it.