Recently, my brother sent me something that got me thinking. It was a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr. Here it is in part: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope… Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
That’s a lot to digest. But, if you can accept the first sentence – embrace the notion that civil society can achieve great things -- then you must accept the rest of the statement. And, if you do, you are forced to elevate your expectations – our expectations – of others and ourselves.
Much of our lives are governed by the drive to attain credentials. We measure our kids by their grades, success at sports and SAT scores. We measure ourselves by an endless stream of degrees, titles, certifications and awards all of which are beautifully presented on our LinkedIn profiles. Is that how you value yourself? C’mon… really?
Life isn’t about how we’re graded; it’s about who we are. And, who we are is very complicated. Most of our mind is occupied by the unconscious. While our analytical mind expresses logic and reason, our emotions assign value and are the basis for reason. We progress as individuals or as a society when reason incites passion.
So, what incites our passion? How do we undertake great initiatives that realize the promise of Niebuhr’s assertion?
Western society is programmed according to “humanist” tradition, a philosophy that emphasizes the value of people both individually and collectively. The tenets of humanism can be traced to the ancient Greek philosophers and they re-emerge throughout history. Humanism survived the Dark Ages and was reincarnated through the British Enlightenment during the 17th Century – through the works of John Locke, Adam Smith and Scot David Hume. It evolved in the 18th Century in the French Enlightenment of Rousseau and Voltaire. It took form in the Declaration of Independence authored by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman.
The notion of human rights is powerfully attractive, not only to us in the West but also, to people the world over. Wherever religious conflict arises, tolerance is urged. The concept of self-rule, championed by Jefferson and Voltaire, is fundamental to the Arab Spring. Although European in their origin, these ideas now form the basis on which the international community judges nations.
Exemplary of Niebuhr’s thinking, the hopes of the Age of Enlightenment have taken many lifetimes to spread the world over.
A great quote from the Iron Lady (a movie about the life of former British PM Margaret Thatcher) expresses it thusly: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.”
Our conscious mind craves money and success. Yet, at a deeper level, we seek moments of transcendence. Most people cannot achieve the promise of Thatcher’s words – what we think, we become. It is rarer still that what we think can be captured and expressed so eloquently that it influences world events for generations. Yet, the inexorable surge for freedom, equal rights and tolerance continues.
The 20th Century was dominated by tumultuous events that distracted us from our core human values of tolerance and hope. The first quarter of the century was shaped by the collapse of both the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires. It was followed by economic depression and holocaust. The second half was subsumed in a monumental struggle between two great nuclear powers.
The post-Cold War era has brought us economic prosperity followed by collapse. The end of the old world order has brought us terrorism and war.
Yet, I have hope. Hope that civil society will prevail in accordance with humanist tradition. Hope that we will continue to evolve according to the tenets of tolerance and self-rule. Those ideas are part of our DNA. That they have been expressed in so many ways for thousands of years is ample evidence.
The only question is: WHO WILL LEAD?