(First published in The Greenwich Sentinel on January 1, 2019)
It has become common practice when beginning a new year to make resolutions, both personal and general.
The word resolution has multiple meanings, including “a firm decision to do or not do something” and “the action of solving a problem, dispute or contentious matter.” The first describes an act of will, the other a satisfactory result. In many cases, the one can lead to the other.
I personally would like to see a bit more peace in the world, starting right here at home. I’m tired of the incessant bickering and name-calling that has become the staple of our political discourse and infiltrated our interpersonal relationships. When and how did it become acceptable practice to attack someone’s character, or embarrass their family, or harass them at home, or hound them in public venues, all just to win an argument, advance a cause or achieve a political goal? I believe it to be the natural, insidious (and odious) effect of the rise of a win-at-all-cost political mindset, enabled and emboldened by the lack of any effective voice to the contrary. It has grown like an invasive weed in the garden of our political discourse. Like a weed, it is slowly choking off and shutting out much that is good and healthy and beautiful in our society.
This nastiness was never historically part of our national culture. As recently as 30 years ago, our political parties were able routinely to resolve differences and work together for the common good. President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously fought like dogs over policy during working hours and then enjoyed each other’s company over drinks afterward. We are very, very far from that today, and both parties are at fault for letting it happen.
I doubt I am alone in worrying that the problem is likely to grow worse in 2019.
So what do we do about it? How do we turn this situation around? Where do we look for some path out of this mess?
Often, when trying to address the future, we look to the past. My best effort at answering the current question incorporates some wisdom originated millennia ago. A message and exhortation addressed to the entire world and universally familiar, it now seems, sadly, is almost universally ignored.
The dictionary provides several definitions for a "golden rule," the most generic of which is “a basic principle that should be followed to ensure success in general or in a particular activity.” Note the connection between action and result.
Its most famous articulation is actually called "The" Golden Rule: “[I]n everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12) It is not necessary to be a believer or adherent to any religious faith in order to appreciate the simple logic and deep wisdom embodied in those thirteen words.
In my mind, it all boils down to reciprocity, “the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.” Reciprocity of respect. Of empathy. Of patience. Of understanding. Of good will. Of honesty. Of compassion. Of love. This, I believe, is the key to the door leading out of our mess.
It won’t be easy, but as with a diet we can start small and build incrementally on success. I would start with respect. Respect for the genuinely held views of others while simultaneously respecting the right similarly to hold our own views. Respect for the rule of law and the expectation of equal treatment thereunder. Respect for the dignity and humanity of every person, regardless of position, stage or state in life. Respect for simple civility in our dealings with each other. Respect for the common goals and needs of our society, and respect for the reality that honest compromise is often necessary in order to resolve our differences. Respect for the truth, and the constant effort required to prevent its suppression and distortion through manipulation of the ever-expanding means of modern communication.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This famous phrase has been attributed alternatively to Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill. Regardless of its provenance, the statement’s inspiration clearly came from Burke’s 1770 work, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents:
Whilst men are linked together, they easily and speedily communicate the alarm of any evil design. They are enabled to fathom it with common counsel, and to oppose it with united strength. Whereas, when they lie dispersed, without concert, order, or discipline, communication is uncertain, counsel difficult, and resistance impracticable. Where men are not acquainted with each other’s principles, nor experienced in each other’s talents, nor at all practised in their mutual habitudes and dispositions by joint efforts in business; no personal confidence, no friendship, no common interest, subsisting among them; it is evidently impossible that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or efficacy. In a connection, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the public. No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
This, too, is wisdom. It is also a call to concerted action. In order for us to have peace, to get out of the mess we are in, we must all work together to restore decency, respect and civility to our society. Do we have the will to do it?
From the 6th century BC comes another famous piece of wisdom: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64) Sometimes we set ourselves up for failure by taking on too many projects or making too many resolutions. This year, I will focus singularly on doing what I can to advance the cause of reciprocal respect.
Will you join me?