Friday, October 18, 2013

When Washington Imitates Life

This week, Blue Star Families asked its Everyone Serves bloggers to think about the lessons learned from the shutdown. Have we learned anything? Is there anything we can do to prevent future shutdowns? Let me know what you think in the comments.

It has been a harrowing couple of weeks for this country, as the stalemate in our leadership spilled over into our everyday lives. Most days, we just watch the acidic rhetoric and disrespect with a detached disdain and a head shake. But the past few weeks, the complete and utter lack of respect among our legislators invaded not only our newspapers and televisions, but our lives in general. When did obstructing the "other side" become more important than serving the people? How did our leadership get to this point?

I'll tell you how--we let them. Every legislator in Washington was put there by voters. By us. And all of the buffoonery we've been seeing lately? It continues because we reward it. We reward it by re-electing people who behave that way. By driving ratings and click through rates and circulation numbers, we give these bad-actors a stage and a spotlight. By not sending a clear message that an unwillingness to serve is unacceptable, we are complicit. 

Aristotle and Oscar Wilde disagree over whether art imitates life, or life imitates art. Aristotle described art as man's effort to capture the wonder of life. Oscar Wilde believed that art actually defines the way people perceive life, therefore people try to shape their lives to conform with art. 

When you think about it, the same two perspectives apply to what's going on in Washington. Either legislators are behaving so badly because they think they are doing what the people want, or legislators are, by their own behavior, shaping how their constituents will act. 

I would like to think that a bunch of politicians--good or bad--do not define the way an entire country thinks, so I hope Oscar Wilde is wrong. But if he is, that means that the politicians are looking to us, the voters, for a road map of how to behave. We need to give them a better one. We may not be able to change the way one politician behaves today, but we can surely display the kind of behavior we want from our politicians, hoping they will take our collective cues going forward. And if we are going to model the behavior we want from our leaders, here's a good place to start:

Assume Positive Intent. This mantra was taught to me by a friend with whom I disagree on a number of key policy issues. Although not a politician, she works in politics. I asked her once how she is able to be so kind and respectful to people with whom she has such fundamental disagreements. She said that she assumes everyone she talks to is coming from the same earnest place that she is. That's a very important and powerful assumption. If we assume positive intent, we immediately reject the notion of insinuation, ulterior motives, innuendo, and so many of the other negative assumptions that tend to be our default and get in the way of dialogue. Instead, we need to say: I believe you care about what you are saying, and I want to understand you; if I can understand you, perhaps we work together.

HAVE Positive Intent. We need to be worthy of the assumption we are asking from others. There's nothing wrong with disagreement--our Founding Fathers had plenty--but we need to engage with the honest desire to understand and communicate. We need to be open, we need to be humble, we need to be good listeners, and above all else, we need to want to be understood. We need to say: I want you to understand me, I want to work together, and I want to make this country better.

Be Informed. We all know there are things in this life worth standing up for. But if we are going to stand for something, we ought to have a well-reasoned explanation for why. I guarantee, good reasons for standing up never include arguing for argument's sake, or fighting to belittle someone else's position. And being informed, really informed, means being well-versed in all sides of an issue. It means carefully considering why someone might earnestly disagree. It means being willing to ask honest questions and be as critical of what you think is right as what you think is wrong. We need to say: This issue matters to me, and I know exactly why; I have my opinion, but I also understand yours.

Emphasize Urgency. How many of us procrastinate just in our daily lives? I know I'm guilty of it! Often we get the most done in a time crunch. But here's the truth: our government is in a constant state of time crunch. We are already under crushing debt that will follow our children, and their children. We may not be facing a shutdown every day, but we are sinking deeper into the hole every day. No one disputes this fact. We need to constantly be telling our leaders that this is an issue requiring their immediate attention. We need to show them how much we care about not having our children inherent an ever-increasing mess by the way we keep our own finances, by the way we run our businesses, and by what we teach our children about financial responsibility. We need to say: The time to get our house in order is now. Let's not delay the conversation because it's hard. Let's sort this out because we chip away at our children's future every day that we don't.

Understand what Compromise Means. Thomas Jefferson, in his inaugural address, told this nation that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle." That is critical to remember. We all want what is best for this nation. We disagree how to get there, but those disagreements are not new, and are not determinative of character. We must come to a problem willing to consider more than just our solution. We have to be careful drawing lines in the sand, and honest with ourselves about what are our true non-negotiables. And, we have to recognize and respect others' true non-negotiables. Not every Founding Father wanted a republic, but every one of them knew this nation needed a way forward. We need to say: This nation must move forward, and we must do it together; let's figure out how.

Maybe, just maybe, if we say these things enough with the way we live our own lives, our leaders will take notice and do the same. If they don't, we need to start looking for new candidates who will. 

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