Reading Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America, has shaken my own soul. I knew the argument that the United States has endured terrible times when racism, poverty, greed and the pursuit of political power have threatened what I think of as our deepest national ideals. But to read about specific examples (the Civil War, the Great Depression), the presidents and the people involved was eye-opening. To see the duplicity of elected leaders, who said one thing and believed another, to see laws enacted with great intentions gutted by even greater greed, to see Americans veer from openness to foreigners to become citizens of an us-first country reminded me of two-steps-forward-one-step-back thinking I hear so much of today. And the question inside me, “Yes, but now what,” grew louder with every chapter. I am so impatient with progress that happens one faltering step at a time -- especially when the two-step, backward stumbles are so stunning.
But now that I have read the last chapter, I see five behaviors Meacham advises:
Enter the arena: “. . . The paying of attention, the expressing of opinion, and the casting of ballots are foundational to living up to the obligations of citizenship in a republic.”
Resist tribalism: “Wisdom generally comes from a free exchange of ideas, and there can be no free exchange of ideas if everyone on your side already agrees with one another.”
Respect fact and deploy reason: “To reflexively resist one side or the other without weighing the merits of a given issue is all too common -- and all too regrettable.”
Find a critical balance: Theodore Roosevelt said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
And, finally, to keep history in mind: Harry Truman said, “The people have often made mistakes, but given a time and the facts, they will make the corrections.”
So, surviving these trying times does not require rocket science, only attention, thought and action, all shaped by compassion, courage and humility. Ah, if only it was that easy.
The Soul of America is worth reading, of course, because it reminds us of our shared history and reveals the sometimes surprising wisdom of our leaders, including this quotation from George W. Bush, who never seemed very wise or eloquent to me. After 9/11, he said that God created a world of “moral design,” and added:
“Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness,
remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds
all who die and all who mourn.”
Next time, The Divine Milieu.