, , , , , , ,

This post is adapted from a talk I recently gave to the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church.

Recently, the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, along with the Tri-States Civil War Roundtable, dedicated a marker in Woodland Cemetery at the grave of Edward Prince, a Quincyan who distinguished himself through service in the Civil War. Colonel Prince, who had been an attorney before the war, was the second-in-command of a daring cavalry raid in 1863 that diverted Confederate forces away from the defense of Vicksburg, allowing Ulysses S. Grant to move troops into position to take the city, a major turning point in the war.

It is right and proper to honor Colonel Prince’s leadership and valor. At the same time, I find myself wondering: What if Edward Prince’s father, instead of moving his family to Illinois in the 1830s to take up farming, had moved to Mississippi? Unfortunately, one scenario I can easily imagine is that Edward Prince would have distinguished himself in the service of the Confederate Army, and that his service would have been recognized, memorialized, and honored, and that today a controversy would be brewing over whether his statue should be taken down somewhere, or his name removed from a public building, or some other form of reconsideration of the meaning of his acts.

We all have our private forms of reverence. People we respect, honor, and seek to emulate. But reverence also has a public face, in which our society tries to single out people who demonstrate particular virtues, values, or actions, and that’s where things can get tricky.

For much of history, the idea of publicly sanctioned honor, and especially state-sanctioned honor, was tied up with power. And for much of the world, it still is. The emperor’s profile on coins, the triumphal arch in the public square, the dictator’s portrait in every schoolroom. These things show who’s in charge and whose will is to be obeyed. For the rest of us, our job is to admire from our lowly place, not aspire to their exalted status. But in modern times, we have adopted a more expansive idea of public admiration, one that does include an element of aspiration. We are called not only to admire these acclaimed people, but to be like them.  

The complication comes in the fact that people’s idea of what is admirable changes over time. Take Andrew Jackson, for example, first placed on the modern twenty-dollar bill in 1928, although his image has been on American currency, and thus a pre-eminent symbol of what it means to be an American, since the 1860s. What was it that led to his placement on such a widely used banknote? I’d have to say that for earlier generations, Jackson represented what many Americans liked to celebrate and found worthy of recognition: aggressiveness, domination, military prowess, distrust of elites and intellectuals, and boundless ambition. A lot of Americans today still think of those as admirable traits. So it’s no surprise that our former president placed a bust of Jackson prominently in the White House and frequently posed for pictures in front of it.

As for myself, I prefer the person who is being planned to replace Jackson, Harriet Tubman, as my virtue model. She was tough but focused, committed to human liberation in ways both large and small, and unafraid to risk her personal safety in the service of others. And she cared for her aging parents in their later years.

So our ideas of public honor change over time, and one generation’s heroes become the next generation’s problems. Will something similar happen in future years? You can count on it. So perhaps we need to think about how we as a society dole out praise. Maybe we don’t need a statue in the traffic circle to tell us how to act.   

It’s a commonplace among pollsters that when people name the person they most admire, they most frequently identify their mother or father. Favorite teachers come in pretty high on that list, too, along with more distant relatives like grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I’m not suggesting that we start putting up statues to our parents in the backyard, or even the household shrines that are commonplace in some countries. But I am wondering if our definition of heroism needs to be reconsidered, and whether it’s not as inaccessible as it might seem.

What is the phrase that heroes so often use when given praise for their accomplishments? “I was just doing my job.” I think we tend to attribute that comment to modesty, or maybe even false modesty, the idea that if someone says, “Yeah, I did great,” they’re crossing a line of appropriateness. But let’s take the hero at her word for a minute. Let’s say that’s the true and simple feeling. “I was just doing my job.” What does that say to us?

I think it tells us that if we’re looking for greatness, we don’t have to look too far. I’ll spare you any corny stories about everyday heroes because that’s not exactly what I’m talking about, but rather the simple observation that an action that may feel ordinary, even mundane, to the doer may have an impact far beyond its visible effects, or even its intended ones.

I am something of a worrywart in daily life, the kind of person who likes to plan and plan, and think of all the things that might go wrong, and as a result I sometimes rob myself of spontaneous enjoyment. I remember a friend of mine telling me once that on his kids’ birthdays, they would celebrate with a “Whatever Happens” day, deliberately unplanned, following the birthday child’s wishes as they unfolded and sometimes ending up with large blocks of empty time, whiling away a few hours engaged in what even a charitable observer might describe as goofing off. My initial thought about this was that it was kind of cheating, to make a tradition out of not planning anything, and part of me still thinks that. But looking at it from the other direction, I think about the birthday child’s perspective and what it feels like to know that your parent is clearing the day and letting you decide what to do. And if you want to spend the afternoon at the arcade, or go out for indulgent pancakes for breakfast, or just stay in bed until you feel like getting up, that’s what will happen. The implicit message of “Whatever Happens” day is: You matter. I will listen to you. Your wishes count.

And this is where I turn back to reverence, how we show it and how we perceive it in our daily lives. An ordinary encounter can be reverential. When we approach a conversation thinking equally of the other person’s perspective and needs, as well as our own, we are recognizing that individual’s fellow humanity.

But there are many obstacles to that kind of interaction, as we all know. For one thing, and let’s face it, people tend to be pretty selfish much of the time, focused on their own desires and needs and not those of others. I expect you’ve had the experience, as I have many times, of being in a conversation with someone and realizing that they were not paying any genuine attention to what you were saying, but instead thinking ahead to the next thing they were going to say. It’s not a pleasant feeling to recognize that you’re basically serving as a placeholder for someone else’s monologue.

And to complicate matters further, we are surrounded by a great deal of noise these days. How many times, when you ask someone how they’re doing, you receive the stock response, “Busy.” Now there are different kinds of busy. There’s the busy of someone who is trying to make ends meet, and that’s a busy we can all respect. There’s the busy of someone in search of wealth or status, something we’ve all engaged in, although we sense instinctively that this kind of busy has to be monitored so it doesn’t throw one’s life out of balance. And then there’s the busy of someone who is using busy-ness to avoid any empty moments, as if there’s something disreputable about sitting on the deck to watch the sunset, or standing out in the yard getting to know your neighbor, or catching up with an old friend through a note, an e-mail, or even a posting on our current villain, Facebook. Sometimes busy-ness serves as a protective screen, keeping us at arm’s length from the rewarding, but emotionally taxing, labor of more genuine interaction.

And of course the social media themselves are often part of the noise. For every rediscovered friend and engaging conversation, there are a thousand predigested memes, stock comments, and smart remarks that are momentarily funny but ultimately corrosive. I find myself posting less and less on social media these days, not because I don’t recognize their potential as a medium for true engagement, but because they have failed to live up to that potential again and again. In 1985, long before the arrival of the Internet era, Neil Postman wrote his famous critique of the American mass media, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’m sorry to report that the trends he identified in that book have not slowed or reversed, but accelerated, so that today we find ourselves in a state of near-terminal amusement, drowning in hashtag blessings.

I realize that I may appear to have wandered from my original topic by now, so I’d like to try to bring things together and show the connections. My point is that we are presently caught up in a great debate, here in the United States and elsewhere, about what sort of public honor should be given to people, and what kind of people should receive it, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of that debate. Earlier this week, for example, the city of Mexico City announced that it was replacing the statue of Christopher Columbus that formerly stood along one of the city’s main thoroughfares with a different statue, a replica of a pre-Hispanic sculpture depicting an indigenous woman, known as the Young Woman of Amajac. This is a powerful shift in emphasis, from the conqueror to the conquered, and we should not minimize its significance.

But in our daily lives, we are not likely to have the opportunity to behave heroically, to lead troops into battle, free enslaved people, or anything else that might put us in a portrait gallery. But what we can do is what I’ve suggested here: we can engage with our fellow humans in an authentic and reverential fashion.

I was thinking about the Golden Rule a few days ago. It occurred to me that most of the time, we think of the Golden Rule in instrumental terms. Why do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Because it’s good business in the long run. If I honor my agreements, and keep my word, and that encourages you to do the same, we both come out winners. Kind of like the rules of the road. Drive on the right and you won’t wreck. But there’s another level at which the Golden Rule speaks to us. In treating others as we would like to be treated, we are recognizing our common humanity, the bond that joins us all regardless of race, gender, age, or any of the other accidents of circumstance.

When we treat someone with courtesy, listen to them without prejudice, and act with compassion and kindness, we are just doing our job. Our job as human beings. And not that it matters, but it’s possible that someone will be building a little statue of us in their heart as a result.