Fresh Ideas: A Time for Humility
April 16, 2003
What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character? –Henry James
In a recent conversation about Iraq, someone said, “Why should we care what other nations think of us? If we feel good about ourselves, isn’t that enough?”
Those words stopped me in my tracks. I care what others think of me. Why should it be any different for a nation?
Four weeks ago, the United States made a choice: instead of respectfully hearing our allies’ arguments regarding a preemptive strike against Iraq, we disregarded them, insulted their national characters, and threw them the ultimatum — you’re either for us or against us.
Am I advocating decision-making by nation polling? Do I presume to second-guess the president and our military leaders? Of course not. But surely we possess enough political finesse to have made our decision to attack without losing the respect and yes, even the affection, of our best friends and allies. What has our arrogance cost us?
Eventually, all of us — individuals and nations — have to see ourselves as others see us.
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I remember a defining moment in my son’s life when he realized that caring what others thought of him was not simply a question of image, but one of character.
John was in high school, playing the men’s club golf championship at Eagle Valley West. The club was counting on him, and he wanted one last win of the season so college coaches might consider him as a Division One recruit.
After two days of grueling play, going into the second to last hole of the tournament, John led by one stroke. He hit a good shot with his faithful driver, but the ball headed to the left and landed in a bush on the hillside.
When he found the ball, he saw that it was worse than he had thought — he had nowhere to stand. So he shuffled some dirt to get decent footing, gauged his stroke to break through the sagebrush but not damage his club on the rocks, and hit the ball out of the bush to within 15 feet of the hole. He parred to hold the lead by a stroke.
The players in his group congratulated him on the shot. He explained how he had aimed 30 yards right of the green to compensate for the angle of the hill and the extra pull of the bush. But when he told them he had shuffled some dirt to create a place to stand, one of the other players, Jerry, a former rules official and tournament director, suggested that John had broken the rules by “building a stance,” something John had never heard of. Since Jerry had not actually seen John do it, however, Jerry couldn’t call the penalty.
John walked toward his next shot. Should he disregard Jerry’s information, not take the penalty and probably win the tournament? Or should he take the penalty and possibly lose? There was more to this decision than doing the right thing. He respected Jerry and wanted Jerry to respect him. So John gave himself a two-stroke penalty before the last hole of his last tournament as a junior player.
Soon word reached the clubhouse that the kid in the lead had taken a voluntary penalty and had lost the coveted championship by a stroke. When John finished the round and walked in, every competitor, one after the other, shook his hand. John heard the word “honorable” from many players that day.
The story doesn’t end there. A few weeks later, John was practicing on the driving range at Silver Oak. He overheard two men nearby who were hitting balls and talking about a kid from Carson High who lost the men’s club championship by one stroke because he called a two-stroke penalty on himself. “I’d like to shake that kid’s hand,” one of the men said. “He sure showed what he’s made of.”
Actions reveal character, whether they are the actions of individuals or nations. What have our actions revealed about our national character? After the flags are folded and put away, after the adrenalin rush of victory has subsided, after we bury our dear, heroic dead, then what? History will judge whether or not we made the right decision; history will also record the way we made it.
But you don’t have to believe me. Read Plato or Heraclitus or Jesus: they stress that we live in communities, that we must see beyond the narrow confines of our own perceptions, that when we make choices, we must accept the consequences of those choices because they affect others. And if we are human, we must care what others think of us — whether we are part of a family, a community, a nation, or the world.
We are at the cusp of another opportunity to show who we are as Americans. I hope we show humility. Not doing so suggests a dangerous arrogance — the Greeks called it hubris — which has brought emperors, and empires, to their knees.
Marilee Swirczek lost her childhood friend and classmate, Cpl. Richard A. Funelli, Jr., U.S. Marine Corps, on Jan. 15, 1967. He perished in the service of our country in South Vietnam, Quang Nam Province. He was 19 years old.