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Three Habits, Or Democratic Virtues, of Highly Effective People...Yearning A More Perfect Union

I don't like that man. I must get to know him better. Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States

Today on this Fourth of July, it’s worth considering what might be the habits of highly effective people in terms of living well together. (Yes, I’m stealing the title from Stephen Covey, author of the classic book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).

How might we live lives of freedom, meaning, wisdom, resilience, kinship, equality, and joy? All of us.

How might we successfully live into our American motto… e pluribus unum, out of many, one? Could it be that people from many and often conflicting backgrounds and views can live on this continent in conditions of unprecedented freedom while also thriving together as one people? Can we effectively figure out how to reconcile our differences to form “a more perfect Union”?

That’s a high calling! And I’m not up to the task, but I’m doing my best anyway. I’m letting my memory of Abraham Lincoln inspire me. I see Lincoln as a man who gave his life for the preservation of the Union. He was a man, in my mind, of both high principles and humility. He never bragged, never gloated, never considered the conversation closed. He never suggested in word or deed that humility undermines conviction (I’m getting some of this from David Blankenhorn’s book, In Search of Braver Angels: Getting Along Together in Troubled Times). Lincoln never saw his opponents as enemies. Even in war, he did not dehumanize others. He was understanding, compassionate. Had malice toward none. Urged us toward connecting with the better angels of our nature.

“I am loathe to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.” (First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861).

In a nutshell, then, here are three habits, or democratic virtues, of highly effective people, that is, people who take seriously the work of forming a more perfect union.

1. Be humble

2. Keep the conversation going

3. Connect with the better angels of our nature

Be humble. Humility is mostly misunderstood and maligned. Humility is an awareness of both our strengths and our weaknesses, it’s an awareness that we are inherently worthy, but no better than anyone else. It’s the understanding that we may know some stuff, but we have much to learn. And we aren’t going to learn it unless we check our egos. If you want to reap the benefits of humility (and wisdom) ask these questions – When have I been wrong? When have I changed my mind? What am I reading and listening to that argues against my firmly held beliefs and opinions? (If you’d like to know more of the benefits of humility and tools for becoming more humble try the book Humble by Dr. Daryl Van Tongeren which outlines how we can free ourselves from the traps of a narcissistic world.)

Keep the conversation going. Again, I’m leaning on the work of Blankenhorn. When we are “dialoguing” with others, we often have in mind to change others’ views. Quit that.

Or we are trying to teach others a thing or two. Stop it. Just keep talking. Don’t bow out of relationships because someone thinks differently.

Instead keep seeking to understand. Enlarging world views. Being curious.

Changing and growing often does happen organically in this sort of psychologically safe environment, but the idea is simply to understand and stay in relationship.

I read recently in an opinion piece which offered that the best thing we can do for democracy today is to get out of our silos and talk to each other today. And maybe we could do a lot of listening as well.

Connect with the better angels of our nature. It’s in there. Inside us. For most if not all of us.

If you’d like a little primer on this, try a TED talk today – perfect for July 4th. It features the photographic stories of National Geographic photographer, Dewitt Jones. Celebrate What’s Right with the World! (thank you, Karen, for reminding me of this).

And…if you need a little pepper upper – a reminder of who we are in a squeeze, here are a few modified (for brevity) excerpts I read from a story in the Seattle Times yesterday.

Picture it’s a nice sunny holiday weekend and you walk aboard one of the Washington State Ferries to stroll around historic Port Townsend for the day. It’s a little breezy, but besides a few whitecaps, you hardly notice the sailing conditions.

After a day of perusing art galleries and quaint shops, you walk back to the ferry terminal and now the wind’s picked up…

Ferry is canceled. So is the next – the last one for the night….but on this day, the beginning of Independence Day weekend, there is nowhere to shelter in all of Port Townsend. Hotels and vacations are booked solid…

And that’s when, a small group of ferry passengers, after checking every option they can think of including the American Red Cross, the Sheriff’s Office, and the YMCA, start to ask if they can camp out at the ferry terminal. But no. Against the rules.

Then, a young man, BG Patterson, 47, who works as a terminal attendance, says, “You’re all staying at my house.”

Patterson took them home to his family and his1300 square foot home. Folks slept on the floor with kid-sized blankets. The next day Patterson brewed coffee for the group and shuttled them back to the ferry.

It’s times like these, when we step up to the plate for strangers in need, that we get a glimpse of the angels of our better natures. We forget it's in us. But it's there.

It sounds almost like a crazy undertaking these days, to dedicate ourselves to a more perfect Union or even our every day sort of unions. We can follow the examples of people who have become before us. Like my hero, Abraham Lincoln.

How might we journey together to the Good Life and a more perfect union by being more humble, keeping the conversation going, and connecting with our better angels?


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