Finding Our Better Selves

I woke up yesterday at 2 AM and found myself churning over the current climate of discourse in our country. I sunk into a place of sadness, sorrow, and shame. It is not just that our leaders are failing us in this regard. No, we are all complicit at letting this vileness seep into our culture and even into our own homes. We should all be ashamed.

Later in the morning I ran into Michael Gerson’s piece  in the Washington Post titled “The Rhetoric Of Our Era Has Reached Its Vile Peak.” I am not a happy reader of The Washington Post these days, and yet Gerson is a good one. I was eager to hear what he had to say about the “rhetoric of our era.” That is exactly what I was stewing about in my sleepless night.

Here is the way Gerson begins his column:

On a Saturday night in April, the rhetoric of our historical era reached a culminating, symbolic moment.

In Washington — at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — comedian Michelle Wolf mocked the physical appearance of a Trump administration official, joked about feticide and compared the president’s daughter to “an empty box of tampons.”

In Washington, Mich., President Trump gave an 80-minute speech in a stream-of-semiconsciousness style that mixed narcissism, nativism, ignorance, mendacity and malice. He attacked the FBI, intelligence agencies, the Justice Department and his presidential predecessors.

Something has gone terribly wrong. Are we forced just to sit and listen to this garbage? Have we sunk so low that this is the norm of our day? Is this the way we want our children and grandchildren to talk? Is this the way we want to treat each other? There were other times, Gerson suggests, when bigger people rose to the podium with expansive vision and eloquent speech. Up against an Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King, Jr., what in the Lord’s name has happened to us?

Gerson continues: political discourse is now characterized as

nasty, shallow, personal, vile, vindictive, graceless, classless, bullying, ugly, crass and simplistic. . . . It is the triumph of the boors. It is a discourse unworthy of a great country, and a sign that greatness of purpose and character is slipping way.

Gerson ends with this thought:

. . . I would deny that most people would have anything to do with such revolting garbage in their own lives. A guest at your dinner table like Wolf who profanely attacked other guests would be politely (or not so politely) asked to leave. A neighbor who ranted like Trump about Mexicans and the FBI would be avoided like the plague. And yet people whom we could not trust to behave in civilized company now dominate American public discourse.

As I think about it, maybe this is the starting point for change. Maybe if we look inside our homes we can find the antidote we need. If we work from the inside out, maybe this revolting garbage can be thrown to the side where it might languish. What if we tried shutting off cable a bit (on whichever side of the fence we are on)? What if we limited our incessant feeding on Twitter and Facebook and email? Maybe if we just stop being so blessedly obsessed with the obsessive politicizing of our news? Maybe the solution is to let these folks shout about in their comfy little silos. Why should this stuff matter to anyone trying to build better lives for themselves, their companies, their churches, their families, their neighborhoods?

In his “First Inaugural,” Abraham Lincoln recognized the passion that threatened to bring down the nation. The standoff was monumental. Neither side would give an inch; each declared its righteous purpose. But Lincoln, with characteristic eloquence, called on the nation: “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Let us seek to be called “by the better angels of our nature.”

As we wallow in the vile discourse of our times, might our shame push the pendulum the other way? Might we reach down deeply for our better selves? We can do better than this, can’t we? My answer is emphatically yes, though my confidence is shaken. So maybe it’s worth a try. At least we can begin at home. Let’s show kindness and civility and grace to those near to us. And let’s resurrect the very best speech we can offer. Good speech might clean up the polluted air a bit. Maybe the only way to change this climate of vileness is to practice ourselves something radically different.