A Nation’s Character

“Our nation will not survive as we know it without an engaged and committed population.” – Dan Rather, What Unites Us

“Once a belief is successfully dressed up as truth… we feel justified in whatever moral judgement or decision we render. When we detect no problem in our moral machinery, we see no reason to expend energy to rebuild it.” – Dr. Jim Loehr, Leading with Character

Americans are in a funny place right now. It’s like a family that got in a big fight right before Thanksgiving, with everyone at the table and hurt feelings all around. Except that it isn’t just America. Russia, China, France, Germany, Great Britain… etc. all going through their own version of family drama right now. COVID has something to do with it, of course, but the events unfolding in the world were a long time coming. Change chafes at some segments of the population more than others.

The two books quoted above are adding context to what I’m seeing, and each offers lessons garnered from individual lifetimes of observation on the part of Rather and Loehr. A nation’s character is defined by its citizens and the leaders who are chosen to represent them. That list of countries facing identity crises has very different ways of choosing leaders. The world is reacting to change, fueled by previously unimaginable levels of communication. Character and truth matter more than ever before in a world where communication can serve or misdirect.

Political leaders are just people with a higher tolerance of, or hunger for, the public spotlight. The very best of them find common ground, the worst fall in line with cliques and party expectations. Which reminds me of the not-so-ancient words of Stephen Covey to seek first to understand, and then to be understood:

“The early Greeks had a magnificent philosophy which is embodied in three sequentially arranged words: ethos, pathos and logos. I suggest these three words contain the essence of seeking first to understand… Ethos is your personal credibility, the faith that people have in your integrity and competency. It’s the trust that you inspire, your Emotional Bank Account. Pathos is the empathic side – it’s the feeling. It means that you are in alignment with the emotional thrust of another person’s communication. Logos is the logic, the reasoning part of the presentation.
Notice the sequence: ethos, pathos, logos – your character, and your relationships, and then the logic of your presentation. Most people… go straight to the logos, the left brain logic, of their ideas. They try to convince other people of the validity of that logic without first taking ethos and pathos into consideration.” – Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

And here we are, with most people leading with their mouths (or Twitter accounts). Most people go straight to logos, without seeking first to understand their constituencies, their peers, the needs of other countries in a small, frail world. Empathy matters. Character matters. The rest is just noise that works 24/7 in sound bites and tweets to erode the foundation of truth and dignity.

I once had a roommate who would tune in to British Parliament just to watch the room fill with shouts of support or dissent. It all seemed chaotic to me, madness really, with no statesmanship, no decorum on display. I know there’s nuance and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that brings meaning to it all, but it all seemed the opposite of polite discourse towards consensus and progress. Plenty of television programming has adopted this format, for apparently a segment of the population loves shouting and escalation. But what get’s accomplished in the end? Lately it seems largely a stalemate or one party’s slight majority driving policy until the next party takes over and undoes the other’s work. Madness.

The world is changing, as it always has been. We’re all witnesses to massive change, while also actors in that change. The actions of the individual matter more than ever before, and we must find a way to amplify the truth, to rebuild our moral machinery, and to unite despite our differences. The efforts of the individual, without individualism. Without nationalism. For that is the only way forward. The rest is chaos and conflict. Escalating. Ad infinitum.

The thing is, I’m an optimist. I think of the slogan that The Washington Post adopted a few years ago; “Democracy dies in darkness”. There’s truth in those words, and the more engaged and committed the population is in finding the truth and progress towards a common good, the better we’ll all be. The pendulum swung sharply towards ugliness and nationalism for a while there, and it will take the collective will of the majority to pull it back to center.

It’s in our hands. A nation’s character is defined by us. You and me… and them too.

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  1. Suggest further reading to provide an interesting millennial and societal perspective of what is happening to us: Sapiens by Harari. The author makes an intriguing case for myths and (not necessarily truthful) beliefs being responsible for human domination. However, our world continues to evolve into a single global empire, and the destructive path left in our wake is disturbing.

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