Humility, Please

As President Obama begins his second term, we celebrate the peaceful transitions of power that make the USA the most stable expression of representative government in history. Even in our most contested elections, no militias have seized power and no parties have outlawed dissent and no dictators have risen to eradicate our experiment in self-governance and shared power.

Today is also the commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and legacy – a life cut short by a racist’s bullet, but a legacy of compassion and justice we still aspire to as a nation.

With these celebrations undergirding our souls, we must not deceive ourselves that all is well and that life will continue on as it always has. Ominous economic, moral, spiritual and social realities cannot be completely obscured by distracting hot-button issues like gun control (reasonable controls are fine, but assault weapons account for less than 1% of all murders) or more federal largess to ravenously dependent constituencies.

We have to face the debt and deficits. We must recognize our foreign policy weaknesses and shore up our relationships with allies like Israel and Poland. Will we confront family implosion with moral and spiritual solutions, not more programs doomed to fail because children desperately need a daddy and mommy? We must stop ruminating about “de-industializing” America as the rest of the world charges past us in the global economic race. We must cease deceiving ourselves that we can spend our way out of recessions and talk our way to peace with totalitarians.

Mr. President, there is one key to a great second term. You cannot control all events, from nature’s fury to foolish decisions made in other nations. You cannot make a speech and heal the economy or the planet. There is one character trait that will unlock the door to a brighter future for all Americans. What is this key?

Humility. The humility to learn from those outside your ideological bubble. Humble people learn from mistakes, increase accountability change habits. Humility opens hearts and minds among adversaries and increases the chance of successful negotiations. Humility thinks of the good of all for the foreseeable future instead of one’s personal image or legacy. Humility opens the door to divine favor and reconciliation among warring factions. Humility is more powerful than intimidation, because it compels thoughtfulness instead of polemics. Humility knows when to compromise on some practical matters.

Humility is courage wisely managed and power carefully exercised. Humility liberates from the destructiveness of narcissism. Humility opens the door to heretofore undiscovered answers to baffling problems. A humble heart will show respect for all people, thereby garnering openness for new ideas.

Mr. President, allow God’s love to remove the barely concealed contempt you have for your political adversaries. The athletic competitiveness of your youth and the radical fervor of your win-at-all-costs young adulthood community organizing needs tempering as you realize that Paul Ryan is just as smart as you are. If you listen and negotiate with him, you will go down in history as one of a few Presidents with a great second term. In our century, Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton fostered trust, forged compromises and made the world a better place by swallowing their pride and working with opponents.

The “one thing needed” (paraphrasing Jesus of Nazareth in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 10) for progress is also the most difficult virtue because it requires dismantling of defenses and  construction of character on a foundation of reverence and for God and respect for all people. Humility liberates us from self-imposed demands of personal omniscience and the pressures of perfectionism.

Humility, please, Mr. President.

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