This political season is providing fodder for decades-long reflection on the matter of character. In general, good character has little traction in our public conversation, that is, a sustained consideration of what it’s comprised and whether anyone is really after it, as opposed to using the word as a weapon in superficial political volleyball.
Is good character something you strive for? Is there a general clamoring for more of it within our communities? Is it a value in our education system, or better, is a commitment to gain it evident in the lives of our educators? Politicians? Artists? Business leaders? Whomever? Do you have a sneaking suspicion it’s a topic for innocents or weaklings?
George Washington once said, “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” The unabashed simplicity and clarity of that statement takes the breath away in two ways: the fact of his striving, and the fact that such a thing would be an enviable title. Have you ever heard anyone, at anytime, say anything remotely like this today in our public life?
One of our problems involves the ubiquity of personal information: we know all about everyone’s feet of clay. We are led to believe there are no moral exemplars. To think otherwise promotes a fictitious rendering of human nature. I disagree.
Well, I don’t disagree that all of us have skeletons in our closets, as it were. But I do believe that moral courage can be chosen day by day. Just as an athlete recognizes her physical goals can only be achieved by developing and maintaining a pattern of working out, one could establish a bead on the same goal Washington states above and regularly practice the character muscle nearly every hour of every day.
Taken as a whole, I have some fear that the American people may suffer from character deficiency. Their own character muscles may have gone the way of the American waistline. Maybe we’re no worse than we’ve ever been, but the stakes have risen into sharp relief. What will drive our common purpose in these next years? Fear, hatred and tribalism, or something else?
The thing to remember is that everyone exhibits some form of character. Me, you, members of your family, friends, business associates. As I mentioned last week, all of us are known by the wake we create as we pass through our days. We are also known by what we say we honor most of all. From the distance of several hundred years, Washington’s goal seems very brave, and very out of step with the current disposition of the body politic, very naïve. “Little Georgie,” a certain presidential candidate might derisively call him…with the crowd roaring their agreement in raucous contempt…