In my last post I talked about how we, as a society, have become so thin skinned. Being offended has become America's favorite past time and has spawned a thriving business opportunity in what I call the Indignation Industry: cashing in on being offended.
Of my three reasons why we have become so brittle as a nation, the last affords the best chance to individually change and grow in character: to become big hearted, the kind of person who is generous, patient, gracious, willing to over look a slight. Turning an entire nation starts with the turning of ourselves individually.
In a conversation this week the topic of great leaders came up and I thought of the biography of Abraham Lincoln that I read a few years ago, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I loved the book because it didn't merely detail the history of Lincoln's life and the events of the Civil War. It gave penetrating insight into Lincoln's character and from that I'll illustrate my belief that to be not easily offended, we must be big hearted.
Of the many character qualities Lincoln had, one of his greatest was his humility. He was written off by his rivals for the 1860 presidential election because of his rough upbringing and his homely, unkempt appearance. His opponents for the Republican nomination were some of the most brilliant, famous and successful men of their day. Most of them and other party leaders treated the country bumpkin "rail splitter" Lincoln with condescension, even contempt. Yet Lincoln never showed the slightest offense at this treatment, remaining serene and responding with graciousness, even kindness for which he was well known. Shockingly, Lincoln overcame the entire field of prominent men, won the nomination and won the presidency.
Knowing the enormous issues that faced America with southern states in rebellion over slavery, Lincoln knew he needed a cabinet composed of the finest minds possible to guide his presidency. So he picked for those posts the very men who had opposed him and in some cases openly disdained him over the years. One by one, as they worked closely with him in his cabinet, they were won over by his gentle kindness, generosity and humility. Of them, William Seward and Edwin Stanton became his close friends. In Stanton's case that was most remarkable because Stanton had been publically critical of Lincoln in the past and in temperament he was stern and choleric, the polar opposite of the affable, gentle hearted Lincoln.
Lincoln could work with men who had been previously so opposed to him because he was humble. He knew that he needed their brilliant counsel more than he needed submissive men whom he could easily control. Humble people have not put themselves on a pedestal, needing the praise of others to affirm them there. With no inflated ego, there is nothing to puncture with sharp criticism.
Lincoln was roundly known also for his kind heartedness, a quality that is founded upon love of others more than self. It is a quality uniquely joined to humility. Stories of Lincoln putting others' needs foremost abound. For example he liberally pardoned soldiers charged with desertion and dereliction of duty because so often they were teenaged soldiers, boys shouldering men's uniforms and terrible duties, youngsters frightened at being thrown into the maw of a savage war. Lincoln did not have the heart to have these youth executed.
Stanton, even after he had worked with Lincoln for some time and had grown to love him, could still in anger sharply criticize decisions by the president, such as once calling him a "d*mned fool!" When told of this Lincoln smiled serenely and said, "If Stanton said I was a d*mned fool, then I must be one, for he is nearly always right."
Where do we find such people today? We have become a brittle people today because we have become self centered and egotistical. When we are motivated by love of self more than of others, we bruise and bristle easily and the entire culture becomes more coarse and hostile.
We don't study great men like Lincoln anymore. We consider history boring and we miss the wealth not only of history but of insights into great people who navigated those awful times. We also overlook those more common people right around us who might be gleaming lights of refined character from whom we can learn. Because our eyes are ever on ourselves, we can't look outward to others who model greatness.
To be one who is not easily offended requires, for one thing, that we become a life long learner. We must look outside of ourselves. Learn from the likes of Lincoln, or even from the quiet souls within our own lives whom we over look because first, they don't seek attention and second, our gaze is continually turned inward. To look to them is the first step toward humility and our tendency toward taking offense will recede. Joined with that must be the cultivating of a heart that cares for others, willing to take another's well being into consideration, often above our own. With that perspective it becomes much harder to be provoked over some slight that may come our way. How can we be offended, when self is not at the center of our universe?
Change begins with me, with each of us individually, from whom it can spread and transform a nation.