BRUNSWICK — In the aftermath of a toxic presidential campaign, what insight can one offer into our nation’s character and spirit? Where is the hope for meaningful renewal?

Below are offered: 1) some perspectives on our human temptation to use power and influence primarily for personal gain; 2) an affirmation of the value of education at all levels in the humanities; and 3) a reminder of the virtue of humble self-reflection as preparation for responsible action.

But first, a football analogy.

In the primaries and general election campaign, there were innumerable instances of personal fouls, including flagrant ones akin to face-mask penalties and late hits. The game of football with its penalty system both reveals and and sets boundaries for human nature’s dark side and does this apparently better than our political game does. In any case, the grass on the political field at game’s end was strewn with yellow flags.

I believe that if personal foul penalties had been fairly charged, especially against the Republican candidate, the election would have had a different result. But blame is not the point here; neither is further division the intent.

Rather, the stubbornness of our national problems drives us to ask what can we learn about ourselves as a society and as human beings that might help turn us in what polls like to call the right direction. How can we get reconnected to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”?

What human problem lies beneath our widespread institutional distrust and the intractable partisan gridlock in Washington? Or, put another way: What is it in the human nature of those with power and influence that persistently shapes rules in ways that block a fairer distribution of wealth, income and political leverage?

One answer is this: It is the individual human ego – our universal human proclivity to get “curved in on ourselves,” Martin Luther’s definition of sin (translated from the Latin). Along with our inspired capacity to sacrifice ourselves for others, there is our inclination to place ourselves, our status and prestige at the center of the universe. The Buddha spoke of a fundamental “streak” in our nature that causes our attitudes and actions to fall “out of joint.”

Those with power (e.g., political, economic, financial and religious) are especially tempted. Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the Serenity Prayer, wrote in “The Irony of American History”: “It is characteristic of human nature, whether in its individual or collective expression, that it has no possibility of exercising power without running the danger of overestimating the purity of the wisdom that directs it.”

Conservative columnist David Brooks, in his best-seller “The Road to Character,” asserts, “We are all ultimately saved by grace … . You are accepted”; the book contains nearly 70 references to sin. Jim Wallis, a leading figure at the crossroads of religion and politics, writes that “history is best changed by social movements with a spiritual foundation … the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights.”

But what about the role of education, the humanities, great literature? Parents and teachers continue to remind us of human nature’s gifts – and its slippery slopes.

Such truths are embodied in great art, drama, children’s literature, folk tales, Greek myths like Narcissus, and comparative religion. These continually remind us of our essential goodness as well as our common moral frailty. They illuminate the importance of gratitude, humble self-reflection and, above all, the centrality of compassion.

In his acclaimed 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, author and social critic David Foster Wallace provocatively posed the question of what we worship, what we ascribe ultimate worth to. He asserted there is no such thing as atheism.

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship,” Wallace said (mentioning Jesus, Allah, Jahweh, the Four Noble Truths and inviolable ethical principles), “is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” Among the things that can devour us, he listed money and things, beauty, being smart and sexual allure.

Wallace’s words are a timely summons to humble national self-reflection, and they call us to live lives that are actively responsive to the better angels of our nature.

One of Niebuhr’s ardent admirers, Barack Obama, wrote some years ago that modesty and humility in the face of the world’s evil, hardship and pain should not be used “as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

The next step is ours to take.


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