Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Questions from our better angels
December 24 happens in six days. Are you ready?
No, I don’t mean the status of your Christmas list or any other sort of relative- or commerce-related condition. I mean, are you ready?
The Advent season (that’s now) has traditionally been devoted to taking stock, cleaning up and preparing one’s self for Christmas, the point around which more than the entire kid world revolves, to borrow from Gene Sheppard. It is a period of self-reflection and waiting for the arrival of the one who, as the Victorian English carol has it, “comes to change men’s hearts,” something this year seems to demand more than most.
Letting go of one’s self — one’s prejudices, one’s preferences and predilections, even one’s thinking — is never easy. Some try to do it, and fail; many never even make an attempt. It’s difficult, unpleasant work; far easier to drift with the current fashion or cocoon oneself with echo-chamber assumptions. But the season demands more, and the rewards are many for those who persevere.
What is the truth about our fellow humans? Are we failed creatures, prone to covetousness, violence and anarchy? Or selfless beings, moved to charity and sacrifice without expectation of recognition? Note: a demand that government confiscate money from one group to give to another is not “charity,” but a dodge. True charity is opening one’s wallet personally to alleviate another’s suffering. Stopping by the roadside to see if a person who is struggling with their car needs assistance. Checking in with the guy slumped against the wall in the post office late at night to ascertain whether he’s just charging his phone or requires real help — and if the latter giving it, right then, right there. Taking in a stranger who has no place to stay. These and more are charity. Those in too great a rush to see, in too much of a hurry to stop, too preoccupied by sales to notice may not be ready for this season, whatever they think about how others should solve the problems they see around them.
How do we think about others? If we pat ourselves on our backs for tolerance which is literally only skin-deep, how tolerant are we? Do we listen to opinions with which we disagree, or do we automatically see everyone on the other side of any question as tools of the Devil, rejecting without a moment’s hesitation any unorthodoxy that threatens our comfortable self-satisfaction? Those who see their intellectual opponents not as mostly well-meaning souls misguided by untruths or misinterpretation of facts, but as willfully ignorant vermin worthy only of extermination are not ready for the season.
Those who believe there is only one way to think and speak about things, and are willing to beat up enough people and destroy enough property to get their wish are definitely not ready for the season. Their fellow totalitarians in governments aren’t ready either.
It is important that we grapple with these questions, not only for the season’s sake, nor only for our own. Since we govern ourselves, our answers are important to the qualities of our governments as well. Since, as Madison noted, angels do not rule men, but men rule themselves, as a practical consideration we should try to insure that rule is the best possible. True tolerance, forbearance, patience, humility, wisdom and strength are the qualities most required in this season of waiting, and in every season of human government. As it is with a human life, so it is in the life of the state.
Can we re-create a state which incorporates the qualities mentioned? That acts decisively when necessary but restrains itself otherwise — and has the wisdom to know the difference? That nurtures tolerance not only for superficial characteristics but for the most meaningful parts of human life — thoughts, dreams, expressions, beliefs? That has the humility to understand that it cannot govern every aspect of its citizens’ existence, and has the patience to allow them to find their own ways forward — always providing they do not interfere with others’ right to do the same? I think we can.
It won’t be light work. The rot of hatred, intolerance and authoritarianism have sunk long and deep into every nook and crevice of the governments we have created, and into the organizations we use to maintain them. The Augean stables were a snap by comparison.
But now is the best time to start, and with one’s self the best place. Tolerance, forbearance, patience, humility, wisdom and strength are good qualities to cultivate in this season, and beyond. If we do so throughout the coming year perhaps next Advent, we’ll be ready.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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