Character and Adversity

With the twin afflictions of pandemic fatigue and the non-stop political drama we’ve endured these past six years, I hesitated to share this essay. It covers some old ground. And some of you may just be tired of hearing it. But it seems to me that we are at another pivotal moment in history, where our democracy, our freedoms and our very lives may hang in the balance. Feel free to skip this week’s missive if you have already made up your mind about our direction and have no interest in doing something about it. I’ll still be friends.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the James Lane Allen chestnut, “Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” The frightening events unfolding in Ukraine cast character in stark relief. Here are some take-aways.

Tyrants obfuscate the truth, bending reality to suit their aims.
Leaders tell the truth, even when it’s not something we want to hear.

Tyrants hide from adversaries, surrounding themselves with sycophants.
Leaders confront their adversaries and seek opinions different from their own.

Tyrants rule in a climate of fear.
Leaders lead in a climate of faith.

Tyrants use misdirection and false accusation to discredit opposing points of view.
Leaders fight lies with facts.

Tyrants are divisive, denigrating the many for the misdeeds of the few.
Leaders are inclusive and judge based on behavior patterns and not a single incident.

Tyrants send others to fight their battles.
Leaders stand, arm in arm with their people modeling desired behaviors in good times and in bad.

Tyrants complain without offering meaningful solutions.
Leaders create results-oriented game plans and adjust their path when circumstances change.

Tyrants twist words to support self-beneficial narratives.
Leaders use words to inspire people to pursue their better natures.

Tyrants impose their will for the good of the few.
Leaders express their will for the greater good.

A benefit (or curse) of surviving into your seventh decade is the perspective of history. The horrors perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin were fresh in our minds during our youth. We watched Mao subjugate a people by force and Nixon attempt to undermine democracy by stealth. We exist in a world of mutually assured destruction, where sane minds are all that stand between us and oblivion.

And yet, we quickly forget the price paid by the Greatest Generation to preserve our Liberty and have allowed a new generation of tyrants to emerge.

We hack away at the flaws of our heroes and close our eyes to the threats posed by our villains. And there is no longer the fire in our bellies to go beyond the anonymity of a tweet and personally engage to fight for what we believe in.

Those who would seduce us for their benefit are always out there. They prey on fear, uncertainty, and doubt to motivate us to minimize their culpabilities and put them in positions of power over us.

The John Stuart Mill quote, often misattributed to Edmund Burke, is drowned out by the mind-numbing voices we let validate our comfort zones.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing.”

Orwell was right. “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

I am re-reading William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” That story is replaying in Ukraine. China is watching. Taiwan is next. As we continue to fight amongst ourselves on a meaningless digital battlefield, the forces of darkness take another step closer to our shores.

Leaders realize life is not a spectator sport.
Tyrants count on our unwillingness to enter the arena.

We appear to be headed down the path described in another aphorism, often attributed to Burke, but probably originally coined by philosopher George Santayana.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”