If you have not already done so, please read the previous parts in this series Happy and Appreciated.
Rule #3. Been wronged, but doing what's right. A lesson in closing the gaps.
There is a profound emptiness and disappointment that comes with the knowledge that Thomas Jefferson, American Revolutionary father, author of the Declaration of Independence, and second President of the United States, owned slaves. Incredibly, Jefferson was once a vocal proponent of emancipation and he abhorred slavery for two basic reasons. First, it violated his political and ethical ideals. As an Enlightenment thinker, he felt that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature and a violation of the very principles of liberty upon which the new republic was only recently founded at the cost of so much bloodshed. As a Deist, he also struggled with the immorality and inhumanity of slavery as being in contradiction with the highest ethical teachings of Jesus, who while not, in Jefferson's view, the literal resurrected Son of God, was deemed to be a master teacher of moral life. Second, Jefferson feared that the institutionalization of slavery was contorting white America into a culture that was used to cruelty and tyranny over non-whites and indifference to their suffering, while at the same time lecturing the world on Christian love and morality, family values, and political liberty and justice for all. Thus it was that entire generations became conveniently oblivious to the terrifying incongruity that was America.
The above cartoon was published in the University of Virginia school newspaper (27 Sept 2007). It portrays the now well-known scandal involving the university's founder and icon of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, over sexual relations with one of his slaves. The cartoon served only to draw protests from those who found it racially offensive and wanted the artist fired.-----
Despite his convictions, however, Jefferson considered Blacks inferior, though not so inferior as to preclude having sexual relations and at least one of six children through one of his slaves, Sally Hemings ("Jefferson's Blood," Frontline, 2000). And (with the sole exception of those very children) he never emancipated his slaves while he was alive. His reasons? Despite his legendary principles, he knew that emancipation would ruin him financially. Moreover, he believed that such an act would upset Southern slaveholders and threaten to plunge the new nation into civil war (M. Spalding, "A Note on Slavery and the American Founders," 2002). In short, Jefferson and others found that the "time" was "out of joint" (in the words of Hamlet). Translation? It was a decidedly inconvenient time to do what they knew to be right.
The terrible inconsistency or gap between claimed ideals and real world actions is what concerns us in this third rule, which states simply, if you have been wronged, then do what is right, and not just when it is convenient. For if we do not, who shall?
The great father of Indian independence through non-violent resistance, Mohandas K. Gandhi, put it famously this way: "Be the change you want to see in the world." Gandhi claimed to follow a related principle taught by Jesus called the "Golden Rule," or the "law of moral reciprocity" in modern terminology, versions of which also existed among other ancient philosophical devotees like the Stoics of Greece, the Confucians of China, and the Buddhists of India.
In case someone attempted to corrupt the positive version of the rule ("DO to others what you would have them do to you," Matthew 7:12) -- such as a sadomasochist beating someone and claiming he would not mind if someone returned the favor -- Jesus also gave a more fool proof version: "Never do anything to anyone that you would ever want done to you" (Luke 6:31). Thus, not only sins of commission are prohibited (lying, stealing, doing physical or emotional harm or destruction), but even sins of omission (feelings of ill will for others, wishing for revenge, ignoring injustice or the need for forgiveness and reconciliation).
Psychologists tell us that many people who seem not to care about others have themselves often been treated carelessly. Now, it is hard enough when individual persons treat us this way, but when the larger American culture, its institutions and trends seem all to conspire to make us feel unimportant, or useful only in our roles as pockets, wallets, and purses to consumerism, the hurt, the unmooring of our sense of identity and purpose, can be magnified beyond what we think we can bear.
"You have reached the Good Samaritans. Press 1 if you are depressed, press 2 if you are suicidal..." (from Royston cartoon)
"If you want to know what to do with your message, press 1 now." (From an Ed Fischer cartoon)
I have read and heard repeatedly that the human and humane seem to be vanishing from many of our society's businesses, bureaucracies, even our so-called "service" industries like restaurants, and health care, and service departments. You know, the kind that gives you a phone number to contact if you need help, and then, after the 14th maddening round of button pressing, yet another automated voice tells you that you must call the number you dialed in the first place (true story). One need not look hard or far to see that who you really are, what you really need are only secondary concerns at best in a society that increasingly sees the summum bonum of this world in terms of "the bottom line" (as essayist Roger Rosenblatt once put it), and human beings as mere consumer lemmings.
But you can be the change you wish to see in the world. People who have been wronged, unappreciated and used, may be particularly qualified to be models of positive change, especially if along with the school of hard experience, you come to the conviction that a wrong done plus a wrong in response is the equation for disaster. An eye for an eye making the whole world blind, as Gandhi put it.
Keep this rule close to your heart: Been wronged, but doing what's right.
The founding fathers did enact a noble experiment called America. We have to give them that. But many of them regretted the horrible contradiction of the wrong they allowed to continue. John Quincy Adams, 6th U.S. President, put it this way in 1837:
The inconsistency of the institution of slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented. [Nevertheless] no charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country [Britain] and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence slavery, in common with every mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth.
Even if the charge of hypocrisy is too simplistic, still the founders failed in this respect. Despite their lamentations, they left a critical gap for future generations to close: the gap between our much-vaunted beliefs and the American reality of slavery that only a massive body count Civil War would close; a gargantuan wrong with tragic consequences down to our own day, even after the Civil War and Civil Rights.
If the purpose of history is to learn how not to repeat the mistakes of the past, this is one history lesson we dare not ignore or forget. What the world needs desperately are people -- who know what it is like to be wronged and have understood the lessons of history -- to show employers, businesses, governments, colleagues, friends and family, that we will not leave our gaps for some future generation to close because it was too inconvenient for us to do what we knew was right.
Let our motto and our legacy be, "Been wronged, but doing what's right."
Phone cartoons: free clip art