We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit. —- Aristotle
The best among us are real. They are people who do not just seem to be good, but are. Most of them quietly live the entirety of their time on earth with little fanfare. They repeatedly strive to work hard and be nice. We know that we may implicitly trust them. While they may have small weaknesses as all humans do, their flaws are incidental and insignificant with regard to the totality their character. They are generally humble and unlikely to seek glory. They are the kind of people who inspire and make a difference, expecting no thanks for what they consider to be just the way we should all behave. They are men and women of principle who do not judge but instead set high standards for themselves that they strive to follow at all times.
We have all known such individuals. The best within our personal circles have been relatives, friends, teachers, coworkers, neighbors. We recall the kindnesses of people who impacted our lives in ways great and small. I see a parade of beautiful faces belonging to those who taught me by their actions how to enjoy an exceptional and purpose driven life. Excellence was indeed a habit for them, and even when death or circumstance revealed the innermost secrets of their lives there was no shocking news or evidence of hypocrisy in their stories. They were exactly what we thought them to be.
I suppose that there is nothing more disheartening than finding out that a person believed to be admirable is in actuality a fake. It is more than a stab in the back. It is a blow to the heart. We fill with anger and even grief when a personal icon’s shadow life is discovered. It is betrayal of the highest insult and even though we may find it in our graciousness to forgive such persons, our trust in them is never quite as complete as it once may have been. It is a hurt that leaves permanent scars.
Our humanity is so complex. Each of us falters. We have weaknesses, flaws that mar our search for perfection. We understand lapses now and again but we generally cannot bear hurtful actions that are repeated. We feel that they become the defining habit of an individual and make it difficult for us to believe them even when they tell us that they will change. Thus we may wish a Harvey Weinstein success with his publicly vocalized intent to seek help for his egregious behavior, but his history tells us that we need to be wary. We may want to believe that someone like Donald Trump is in reality a good Christian man, but his hateful public comments indicate that he is not as loving as we wish him to be. We may not desire to judge such men, but we certainly should be wary of choosing them to lead and represent us.
I was reading an editorial recently in which the writer spoke of our recent tendency to choose our leaders on superficial characteristics that she called “the personality of bling.” In other words more and more often these days we are drawn to people who are just shiny objects rather than persons of high character. We are more concerned with winning than doing the right thing. We overlook horrific traits in the name of gaining power, rather than calling out wrong even when it may mean that we will lose. We look away even in our private circles allowing bullies to operate with impunity. We are afraid to stand up for what is right lest we become the outcasts. We berate men and women like John McCain and Donna Brazile for speaking the truth because we don’t want to make waves that might result in upheaval and change. Our silence and tacit approval of men and women that we know to be egregious only encourages them to repeat their bad actions again and again. It also sends an horrific message to our children.
As a teen and young adult my generation fomented rebellion against a system that was wrought with hypocrisy and even hate. The head of the FBI, the chief law enforcer, hid personal secrets while invading the privacy of others and spreading false rumors to bring them down. One of our presidents obstructed justice. Much of our society was segregated and unjust and racist. We were taught one thing and then observed another. Our instincts told us that we had to rise up against the evils that we saw. When we did we were characterized as spoiled and lazy, a label that would haunt us for the rest of our days.
For the sake of our future and the education of our children it is imperative that we repeatedly represent ourselves with habits that are honorable and worthy of respect. This means that we cannot make excuses for behaviors that are harmful. If we want excellence to be our defining characteristic as individuals and as a nation then we can no longer advance false and insulting arguments that defend horrific actions. We must condemn anyone who distorts truth and goodness whether it be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or a member of our own family. We simply can no longer afford to cast stones at those who sacrifice their own reputations to reveal the underside of anyone who is manipulating us. To allow ourselves to be abused by heroes or relatives or bullies is akin to self harm. Our silence and acceptance only allows the bad behaviors to grow. As generally very good people we must begin to heal again and head in a positive direction by removing the fears associated with speaking out.
Long before the terrible shootings at Columbine High School there were teachers and students and parents who reported concerns about the two young men who ultimately became mass murderers. The individuals who stepped forward were questioned and harassed more than the boys who were the objects of their worries. In journal entries one of the killers laughed at how easily he fooled everyone with his charms and bragged about twisting their stories to make it appear that he was being beset upon rather than being the real bully. He might have been stopped if his accusers’ stories had been accorded more respect. Instead the school administrators and even the police suggested that the behaviors were just typical teenage antics.
It’s time for all of us to truly honor character once again. There are many moral people in our midst. In fact I believe that such individuals are the majority. Sadly we are lacking in leadership from the best among us and instead honoring those who fool us with empty promises and bombast. We allow hateful people to proclaim their Christianity even while lying and espousing harmful and selfish ideas. We have permitted ourselves to accept a double standard all in the name of winning. It is time for each of us to insist on excellence of character once again. It is a habit that bears repeating.